Ocala to Pull Out of 911 Consolidation

Council members cited concerns with the accuracy of dispatchers and the time taken to answer calls among the reasons for withdrawing from the partnership.

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(TNS) - The era of 911 consolidation is over, as far as the City of Ocala sees it.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted 4-1 to start extricating its fire department from a seven-year-old partnership with Marion County Fire Rescue and the Marion County Sheriff's Office to handle 911 calls under one roof. Councilman Jay Musleh voted against the move.

Council members cited concerns with the accuracy of dispatchers and the time taken to answer calls among the reasons for withdrawing from the partnership.

But Marion County Fire Rescue Chief James Banta, who only officially took over supervision of Marion County Public Safety Communications on Tuesday, said none of the issues were ever brought up during the department's quarterly administrative board meetings dating back to December 2017. A member of the City Council sits on that board.

The issue was not listed on Tuesday's regular agenda. It came up during City Manager John Zobler's update near the end of the meeting. Zobler said he and the staff met individually with each council member to discuss the concerns.

Zobler said among the concerns were instances where dispatchers sent emergency vehicles to the wrong locations or where 911 calls went unanswered or were placed on hold for several minutes.

On Wednesday, Banta said the allegation took him by surprise as he said his invitation to the meeting was to answer questions about his new supervisory role over Public Safety Communications.

In the face of the appetite to move away from the coalition on Tuesday, Banta asked the council for 90 days to identify and start fixing the issues.

"I am confident we will identify the challenges and we will set out a corrective action plan that will address the challenges," Banta said, adding that a lack of dispatchers is at the core of the concerns.

Public Safety Communications just hired four dispatchers, but still has seven more open positions. Banta said they would still need more dispatchers above the open positions.

"I can tell you right now Marion County Public Safety Communications does not have enough call takers. That's causing a chain reaction. If we can't answer the phone within approximately 30 seconds, it rolls over to OPD (Ocala Police Department.) If OPD can't answer the phone call, it rolls back to us," Banta said.

The council, however, already seemed poised to move away from the partnership.

"I think we need to get out of it and let us have our own dispatch, then we can take the responsibility if anything happens on our watch," said Council President Mary Sue Rich.

Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn, who does not vote with the council but does have oversight of the Police Department, said he was never in favor of consolidation.

On Wednesday, Banta said the picture presented of the Public Safety Communications at Tuesday's City Council meeting was not accurate.

"I do not believe for a minute there is a public safety emergency out there right now," Banta said. "I believe that if we are given the opportunity we can give information that can refute the allegations."

The way the issue came up was also troubling to Banta.

"This probably would have been better held in some workshop forum where we had advanced notice so that we could have discussed this in an open forum and give some specific feedback," he said.

Ocala Fire Rescue, Marion County Fire Rescue and the Marion County Sheriff's Office agreed to consolidate their communications in 2011. The city contributes $250,000 every year to the operation. OPD continued to operate its communications department independently but does answer overflow calls from Marion County Public Safety Communications.

OPD Chief Greg Graham on Tuesday also said he never liked the consolidation idea.

"Our biggest issue has been the lack of staffing and their calls rolling to us, and that just starts a whirlwind of who's answering whose calls and who's not answering the calls," he said.

City Councilman Matt Wardell made the motion to leave the partnership and return the fire department's dispatch services to the city by Sept. 30. Councilman Justin Grabelle seconded the motion.

Zobler also gave council members an estimate of the cost to return fire dispatch back under city control. The initial cost would run about $584,000 and drop to almost $400,000 in subsequent years.

Public Safety Communications recently moved under the supervision of Marion County Fire Rescue. Originally, it was under direct county administration. On Feb. 1, however, the director of the department, Silas Daniels, resigned, prompting the reassignment. The operations are accredited by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch and the Florida Telecommunications Accreditation Commission.

The County Commission met earlier Tuesday, well before the City Council meeting began. At the end of the county meeting, Commissioner Kathy Bryant asked that the county hire a consultant to examine the communications center and help it improve. Bryant asked that the consultant have experience with a successfully consolidated communications center.

"This has been a work in progress, and I strongly think that this (bringing in a consultant) would be beneficial to all of us," Bryant said.

County government staff agreed to research possible vendors to provide this service.

Star-Banner managing editor Jim Ross contributed to this story. Contact Carlos E. Medina at cmedina@starbanner.com or at 352-867-4157


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