A New Sheriff Could Usher in Consolidated 911 in Morgan County, Ala.

The switch to a centralized dispatching model would speed up the response to emergency calls, according to officials.

by Eric Fleischauer, The Decatur Daily / September 7, 2018
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(TNS) —The Sheriff’s Office’s longtime refusal to contract with Morgan County 911 to handle dispatching of calls could change with the termination of a consent decree and a new sheriff taking office in January.

The switch to centralized dispatching would speed up the response to emergency calls, according to Morgan County 911’s deputy director, and would end wasteful duplication of equipment and services.

Hartselle Police Chief Ron Puckett, who is unopposed in the November election and thus expected to become sheriff in January, said his experiences with Morgan County 911 in Hartselle have been positive.

“I’ve been a fan of central 911. We have been participating in that for several years and they’ve been very good to us,” Puckett said. “I think central 911 would be very good in the Sheriff’s Office.”

A federal consent decree issued in 2001 mandated staffing levels at the Morgan County Jail, and Sheriff Ana Franklin has pointed to that order as a reason for maintaining an internal dispatching service. She cross-trained dispatchers as jailers, and also had them do clerical work. Because of the court order requiring specified staffing levels at the jail, removing their dispatching duties would not have resulted in savings.

U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon last week terminated the 2001 order.

“It will allow us to look at different placement and positioning of some employees,” Franklin said of the termination of court oversight.

That flexibility, she said, makes Morgan County 911 a more attractive option.

“I certainly think that this would be on the table now, to consider all points and to see what would be the best course of action moving forward,” Franklin said. “It does free up the minimum required numbers of personnel per the consent decree.”

Morgan County 911 Deputy Director Kelly Armor said the switch would benefit both agencies and residents.

“It’s always been our goal to have a completely consolidated center,” Armor said. “We’d be willing to have that conversation with the Sheriff’s Office anytime.”

One of the main benefits, Armor said, would be in reducing the response time on calls. Under the existing system, all 911 calls go through Morgan County 911. On Sheriff’s Office calls, she said, Morgan County 911 dispatchers must get basic information from the caller before handing it off to sheriff’s dispatchers, who must then get the same information. Morgan County 911 officials have said that transfer adds 60 to 90 seconds to the response time.

“The benefits (of moving sheriff’s dispatch to Morgan County 911) include a reduced time on the call,” Armor said. “It cuts out that additional time in the transfer.”

Another advantage, she said, is that county residents would benefit from advanced dispatch technology without the Sheriff’s Office bearing the cost of duplicating equipment already maintained by Morgan County 911.

“I cannot think of a downside,” Armor said. “We’ve successfully consolidated several agencies over the years, most recently Hartselle PD.”

Morgan County 911 already handles fire and ambulance calls countywide. It also handles all 911 calls for Decatur, Hartselle, Trinity, Priceville and Falkville. The only calls Morgan County 911 hands off to other agencies are those it transfers to the Sheriff’s Office and to the Somerville Police Department, which receives dispatches from the Sheriff’s Office.

One obstacle the Sheriff’s Office could face in making the switch to Morgan County 911 is cost.

Morgan County 911 charges $3.98 per call, an amount set annually by its board. The Sheriff’s Office has received 36,348 dispatch calls in the last 12 months, so the annual cost if services were switched to Morgan County 911 would be about $144,665. The Sheriff's Office received another 4,148 calls over the last 12 months that did not involve dispatching deputies. It was unclear Thursday if Morgan County 911 would charge for those, but if so, annual costs would rise to about $161,000.

A complete rundown of the Sheriff's Office's expenses in handling its own dispatch services was not available Thursday because of the split duties by the Sheriff’s Office dispatchers and because dispatch costs are covered by multiple portions of the budget.

Equipment and access fees, however, total about $126,000 a year, Franklin said. Using Morgan County 911 would not eliminate the need for some county personnel to handle phones, she said, because the Sheriff's Office also received 96,382 non-emergency calls over the last 12 months.

“There is no line item budgeted for dispatch calls, and during our last attempt to develop a plan of action, (Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long) was very clear that he would not add any money to the budget for dispatch,” Franklin said. “We cover all equipment and fees now with discretionary funds from the Sheriff's Office.”

Long said he and the other commissioners historically have deferred to the sheriff on the dispatch issue.

“I think it would probably be better to go to central (Morgan County 911) and just have one source, but I’m not in the sheriffing business,” Long said. “The sheriff has always wanted their own dispatch, and the commission has always supported whatever the sheriff wants. That’s what we did with Sheriff Franklin. We left it up to her. We would do the same with Sheriff Puckett when he takes over.”

Franklin said it’s a big decision she will leave to the next sheriff.

“That is a pretty extensive move, both for us and for central 911,” she said. “I have planned that, in terms of change which would have a major impact on the budget or long-lasting change to the operation of the office, I would defer when at all possible to the next sheriff for those type of decisions."

Puckett said he would have to evaluate the cost, including how he would handle non-dispatching duties now handled by the Sheriff’s Office dispatchers.

“If possible, (switching to Morgan County 911) is probably something we would want to do,” he said. “I think it makes sense to have all of your dispatchers under one roof, especially in the event of a crisis. Why should you have two different facilities where we’re duplicating those resources?”

©2018 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.