Mutual aid fire dispatches questioned

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A seven-year-old memorandum that discusses mutual aid dispatching for Carter County's volunteer fire departments has become a source of contention among some members of the county's Volunteer Firefighters Association and 911 Communications District.
   At a 911 District Board of Director's meeting last week, Scott Whaley, Vice President of the Volunteer Firefighter's Association, told board members and Communications Executive Director Walter Pierce that fire department response had been affected by pager activation from 911.
   "Our services are only as good as the direction we get from the station," Whaley said. "We've had a couple of calls where the pagers were not set off in the right series."
   In response to Whaley's comments at the meeting, Pierce produced a copy of a memorandum dated October 6, 1995, sent to then-director of the 911 District, Sherry Cable.
   David Nichols, president of the county Volunteer Firefighter's Association, wrote the memo.
   In the meeting, Pierce referenced the memo's mention of which fire departments were to be dispatched to render mutual aid on a structure fire call.
   He cited two sentences in the memo that read, "Some time ago, your staff was given a map that had mutual-aid districts and which fire department was to be dispatched to mutual aid. This is a very confusing system to me, and I am sure it was to your staff."
   "If it is confusing to the man who wrote it, very likely, it would be confusing to our people," Pierce told the Star last week.
   Nichols also spoke to the Star late last week and said Pierce's citation of the memo's reference to confusion regarding mutual aid dispatches was "taken out of context."
   "That policy has been in effect for seven years and it has never been complained about," said Nichols. "Why that was dug up and taken out of context is beyond me."
   Obtained by the Star last week, the memo addresses dispatching of volunteer departments to provide mutual aid to their nearest department on structure fire calls.
   The memo reads that "all seven (volunteer) fire departments now request that the two closest fire departments be automatically dispatched to send one tanker each to the scene of a known structure fire."
   At last week's 911 Board meeting, Whaley cited one call involving a citizen who walked into the Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department and reported a structure fire. According to Whaley's statements at the meeting and Nichols comments, the communications center was notified and asked to set off the department's pagers.
   The department's pagers were not set off until 10 to 15 minutes later, according to Whaley and Nichols.
   "They haven't changed that much on dispatching fire calls," Pierce said regarding the dispatch protocols. "The main objective of a fire department is to get to the scene as quick as possible to get the fire out."
   A former 911 dispatcher also raised an issue at the meeting of where calls coming into the 911 office were being re-routed if they were not picked up immediately.
   Keith Ellis -- who acknowledged that he had been discharged as an employee of the 911 Center weeks earlier -- told the board the calls were being re-routed to Washington County rather than Sullivan County, which had a mutual-aid agreement with Carter County.
   Pierce had said during the meeting that the decision to forward incoming 911 calls to either Sullivan or Washington County was made by Sprint Telephone company.
   A spokesman with Sprint told the Star last week that the communications district could re-direct incoming calls to the neighboring 911 communications center of its choice.
   "The county can make whatever decision it wants," said Tom Matthews, spokesman for Sprint's regional office in Charlotte. "If the calls are going to Washington County, that's their choice."
   Pierce said Friday that re-routing incoming calls was up to the district. However, he added that he couldn't understand the relevance of where calls were routed as long as the emergency response didn't miss a beat.
   "It doesn't matter as long as the services are provided," said Pierce.
   Nichols said minor problems of logistics were not the fault of 911 dispatchers who handled emergency, police and fire calls.
   "I believe we have one of the best groups of dispatchers we've ever had," he said. "There are still problems that developed in the coverage area when 911 originated, and those problems are still there today."
   He cited an area of the Minton Hollow community that falls under the Watauga Volunteer Fire Department boundary. When a call is received in that portion of Minton Hollow, the department dispatched is the Stoney Creek department.
   "The dispatcher follows that because that is what the computer tells them to do," said Nichols who has served as president of the Volunteer Firefighters Association, except for one year, since 1995.
   "There's some problems we all need to talk about," added Nichols. "All agencies are not working together as a team. We need to sit down and fix it."