Sharp County 9-1-1 is operating two people short after two dispatchers were fired Jan. 28 in connection with the theft of a county road sign.
Central Dispatch Coordinator Holly Smith, part-time dispatcher Vicki Lewis and jailer Tasia Charles admitted they stole the sign from Jones Lane, near Highway 56 west of Ash Flat, in December, Sharp County Sheriff Dale Weaver said.
After the confession Smith was fired, Lewis was not put back on the schedule and Charles was suspended for three days without pay, Weaver said.
Part-time employees are not fired but can be eliminated from the schedule indefinitely, Chief Deputy Joe Stidman said.
"It's just one of those very unfortunate things. You just have to act on it," Weaver said.
Smith was promoted to coordinator in April 2004, Stidman said. She had 100 hours of training as an auxiliary deputy for the county. She is also an emergency medical technician, he said. No one has been appointed to fill her position yet, Weaver said.
"We just got some information in that this had occurred," Weaver said. "We decided to get them all in at the same time and see what they had to say about it."
Former dispatcher Jennifer Jones had said she wanted a street sign with her name on it for Christmas, Weaver said. Her request, which could have been a joke, prompted the women to steal the sign, he said. The sign has been returned to the county, he said.
"It was a big old joke to them then, but they're not laughing now," Stidman said.
The women can file for a grievance hearing, Weaver said. In case that happens, the county is holding the sign as evidence.
The county is not prosecuting the theft but takes it seriously.
"Under the circumstances it would have been very difficult to prosecute," Weaver said. "I think at least one of them was really sorry about her actions."
"We've had problems with these signs being stolen. Those signs are our directions to an emergency. No one should understand that more than dispatchers," he said.
Charles, who began working with the county full time during the summer of 2004, was reprimanded but was not fired, due in part to her age and her role in the theft, Weaver said.
"We felt like we would give her three days off without pay and give her another opportunity," Weaver said. "She is about 19 or 20 and she was really just with them."
The county Central Dispatch Center continues to operate without the women, Weaver said. Four full-time and approximately five part-time dispatchers are available to man the office which operates with three shifts each day: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m. Some jailers are also certified to dispatch, Stidman said.
"It gives the part-timers a little more work for a while," Stidman said. "We're not hurting for dispatchers."
"We've been able to fill that gap and keep things going in there," Weaver said. "Everything actually worked out pretty well with what we had to face. It's always regrettable, but it's theft of property and it could get someone hurt."
The theft of road signs is a recurring problem in the county, Weaver said. Each week more than 10 road signs are stolen in Sharp County, said county road superintendent Dan Melbourne.
The signs are typically stolen from the same road, with Copperhead Lane being one of the most popular, Weaver said.
Weaver said stealing a road sign is grounds for arrest. The road department is to let him know when new signs are erected so deputies can patrol the area more often.
"Those signs are important during emergencies," Weaver said. "Some of these areas are difficult to find even with the signs, especially at night."