Board forms committee to review 911 communication protocol

By Thomas Wilson

   At their semi-monthly meeting on Tuesday, board members of the 911 Communications District voted to create a subcommittee to review -- and hopefully resolve -- issues pertaining to dispatching and communication to public safety agencies.
   The issue regarding dispatching protocol arose at the board's October meeting. Scott Whaley, Vice President of the Volunteer Firefighter's Association, told board members that volunteer fire department response had been affected by pager activation from the 911 District.
   Volunteer Fire Department Association President David Nichols had been upset regarding the contextual citation of a memorandum read at the board's October meeting by Walter Pierce, executive director of the 911 Communications District. The memorandum, which Nichols wrote over seven years ago, pertained to mutual aid dispatching by 911 dispatchers.
   Whaley spoke before the board on Tuesday and felt the memorandum's reading had contributed to "bad press" for the volunteer fire departments.
   Pierce said the memo's citation was not intended to be any negative reflection on the volunteer fire departments or Nichols, but added that the memo, dated Oct. 6, 1995, was the last and only basis for mutual aid dispatches for the District.
   "My goal is to try to make things better for everybody," said Pierce.
   Dispatchers attending the meeting also spoke out about what they perceived was undue criticism leveled at them over difficulties in emergency dispatching.
   "Whenever there is a mistake made, the finger gets pointed back at dispatch," said another dispatcher on the basis of anonymity. "It is causing chaos and uncontrollable stress. All we hear is 'you screwed up'; we don't hear 'you did a good job.'"
   Presently, two 911 dispatchers pull 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shifts answering incoming calls and dispatching at the 911 Communications Center. Another dispatcher works the typical peak call hours of 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. bringing operator staff to three people for eight hours per day.
   "The people they call out see one call," said dispatcher Tawnya Dugger. "They don't see the 50 calls we are getting at one time."
   The 911 Center dispatches emergency calls for Elizabethton police and fire departments, Carter County Rescue Squad, and the county's volunteer fire departments.
   Nichols felt the optimal staffing plan for dispatchers would be three operators working 24 hours per day and four operators working during peak call hours. He also stated to the board and dispatchers that "90 percent" of perceived difficulties regarding communication between dispatchers and emergency workers could be relieved with an increase in on-duty 911 operators.
   The fact that operators were overworked and understaffed was not lost on the volunteer fire departments, Nichols told dispatchers attending the meeting.
   Board member Dale Fair made a motion passed by the board to establish a subcommittee of board members to review ways to improve communication and cooperation between 911 dispatchers and public safety agencies.
   While board members and agency officials agreed working together was a must, Fair pointed out cooperation was more than talk.
   "You've got to want to work together," said Fair.
   Board members John Pierce, Bill Carter, David Jones, and Jim Burrough were named to the committee to study dispatching and the emergency service communication.
   In other business, the board voted to elect Elizabethton Police Chief Roger Deal as the board's new chairman, effective at the board's next meeting in February.