Marc Goings, Sharp County 9-1-1 Committee chairman, said the meeting Aug. 29 was informative and helped to answer some questions, but it didn't answer the most important question -- how to fund 9-1-1.
Goings said last week's meeting was scheduled to gain input from community leaders and the public to assist the committee as they make plans for next year's 9-1-1 budget.
David Underwood, executive director of Jail Standards, and Sylvia Ross, a member of the local Jail Standards Committee, were on hand to answer questions concerning the logistics of combining dispatching for the Sharp County Sheriff's Department and 9-1-1. Most members of the committee were in agreement the county should have only one central dispatching system, but where to put it and how to fund it are the two big questions they need answered.
"It's not the business of Jail Standards to tell you where to put 9-1-1, but how you do it could be an issue," Underwood told the committee. "Our responsibility is to work with you and protect you from liability."
According to Underwood, the Sharp County jail is already facing a space problem. "It's already not suitable for processing inmates," he said. Underwood said if the space could be found to relocate 9-1-1 in the sheriff's department minimum requirements of jailers and staff would still have to be met. He emphasized the current jailers could not take on the duties of dispatching for 9-1-1 in addition to their current duties. Underwood said the jailers/matrons currently provide other services in addition to dispatching for the sheriff's department. Some of their other job duties include typing reports, cooking, cleaning and seeing to the inmates.
"Health, safety and security -- those are the three words that should guide you," Underwood said. "A person can only handle so many things at one time. Jailers dispatching 9-1-1 could create a real dilemma."
Underwood said for safety reasons there should be two jailers on duty at all times. He cited an incident that happened last year in which an inmate attacked a jailer and the second jailer on duty had to leave her post at the dispatch station to go to his rescue. Sharp County Sheriff T.J. "Sonny" Powell said if there hadn't been two jailers on duty the night the man was attacked he would probably have been killed. Underwood said it is for that reason jailers shouldn't be responsible for manning the 9-1-1 dispatch at all times. However, he added it might be possible to add a third person to the dispatching and jailers who could act as "swing persons" and assist the 9-1-1 operator when needed.
Sheriff-elect Dale Weaver said it would take a minimum of 13-14 employees to operate all dispatching and jailer duties from the sheriff's department. He said he is willing to have 9-1-1 relocated to the jail, but added he, too, was concerned about space availability. Weaver said the sheriff's department is currently cramped, with two investigators working out of a room the size of a walk-in closet.
Goings said by the committee's estimation approximately $30,000 to $40,000 could be saved per year if 9-1-1 was relocated to the sheriff's department, but added there would be initial expenses to make that move. He said he had been given an estimate of $25,000 to move the equipment, plus expenses to add onto the jail to provide a facility.
"It all comes down to money," said Goings. "There just isn't enough money to properly fund 9-1-1 at this time."
According to Goings, 9-1-1 is currently understaffed and employees are working under conditions that should not be acceptable by the county. He said there is currently only one dispatcher on duty during the night. That employee must leave his post for bathroom breaks, leaving the station unattended. Goings said there is also the issue of the possibility of two emergency calls coming in at the same time.
"I'm all for saving money, but not at the cost of a life or a substantial lawsuit to the county," Goings said. "The current setup is just an incident waiting to happen. We just can't take the chance of continuing to operate as we have."
Goings said the committee would continue to meet between now and December to explore ways to solve the problems facing 9-1-1.