By Matt Masters
The Wilson County 911 Board met Monday to continue discussion on the pending decision on co-location and left with plans up in the air after Mt. Juliet police withdrew from the plan.
That left the Lebanon police and fire, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office and Wilson Emergency Management Agency with questions as where to go from here to bring 911 call takers and emergency services dispatchers together under one roof.
Sheriff Robert Bryan said regardless of the status or success of co-location, his department and WEMA would work together to operate in one facility for the benefit of the county.
“For two years, we’ve sat here and talked about this co-location, and we’ve had involvement from across the agencies the whole time, and I respect the decision of Mt. Juliet – the decision that they’re not coming,” Bryan said. “In saying that, it’s going to [create] a hindrance on the sheriff’s office and WEMA as it relates to what are we going to do?
“We went into this thing thinking that all of the agencies were going to be involved, and now that’s changed, and me and [WEMA director] Joey [Cooper] have had discussions as county agencies, and we’re going to figure out what we need to do. Have we made a decision? I know that me and Joey are going to stay together wherever we’re at. I cannot say that it’s going to be here, but the whole point of moving down here was all agencies were going to be in here.”
While all of the agencies were under the impression costs for each agency would rise if parties dropped out, Wilson County 911 Board chairman David Hale and 911 director Karen Moore said they don’t see a large increase in costs to individual agencies even with Mt. Juliet’s absence as the cost of equipment and other operating costs would be reduced with one less agency.
Cooper voiced concern over the lack of policies to address employee pay, chains of command and other policy and personnel issues that could arise as employees from different agencies will operate under the same roof and effectively fill similar roles with different standards.
“Funding is not the total picture here. Funding is one of the many things I feel that makes up the decision. Policy to go along with that, how the different employees that are coming down here, how they’ll actually fit into the system and the equipment all weigh a portion into that decision, and I think policy is a lot of it,” Cooper said
He reinforced Bryan’s sentiments that negotiations would continue between WEMA, the sheriff’s office and the county mayor’s office.
“Our plan has always been for the dispatchers that are here to continue to work for and answer to the agency that they are dispatching for,” Hale said.
Policy and procedure concerns, especially chain of command and consistency of pay between dispatchers across different agencies, were echoed by Lebanon police Chief Mike Justice and Mt. Juliet police Capt. Tyler Chandler, who cited the issues as one of the deciding factors in Mt. Juliet’s decision to step back from the table.
Justice said he was under the impression each agency would have its own call takers who would work with an agency’s own dispatchers, but the reality would be a 911 call taker who then transfers the call to a particular agency’s dispatcher in the same building. He said he didn’t think the plan was one the Lebanon City Council would be willing to spend money or other resources. Two Lebanon councilors, Ward 1 Councilor Joey Carmack and Ward 3 Councilor Camille Burdine, attended the meeting.
“For me to go to my city council on Thursday night, and I say that I want to spend about $350,000 on personnel and equipment to do the same thing that we’re doing now, doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Justice said. “I’m going to present the pros and cons. I think there is a pro to this just by us being in the same room – there is a pro to that – is it $350,000 worth of pro? I’m not sure.”
Moore said there were other issues such as 85 percent of 911 calls that come from cellphones that require calls to be taken then transferred to the appropriate agencies regardless of whether everyone was in the same building versus directly routing all calls from a particular area.
Justice also said he thought from the beginning the plan was a consolidated 911 system. Hale said it’s something the board said from the beginning was planned as a co-location and not a consolidation. The difference is to have all agencies work in the same location versus essentially combining all of the agencies on a dispatch level, which would then require more in-depth change in structure, operations and policies.
Justice also said that so far, the co-location process has no operational plan as to how operations would be handled. Hale said operations were originally planned to be decided once a bid was accepted.
An example of policy issues of concern to Justice were civilian and law enforcement dispatchers wouldn’t be allowed to see the exact same types of information, which causes concern the city may enter into an agreement in the co-location. It would then have policy issues where two or more parties couldn’t agree to solutions. Hale disagreed and said the board could address any issues and come up with policies that would fit the needs of the co-location process.
“We’re asking you, formally, today, until we get this co-location worked out or until we get some kind of plan worked out, we’re asking you formally today that if that call originates in the city of Lebanon, that you transfer that call without delay to the communications center in Lebanon. They will determine what kind of emergency it is, whether it’s fire, police or medical,” Justice said.
Justice he has received complaints about instances where WEMA received calls to respond to scenes within Lebanon city limits, which caused delays in communications to Lebanon police and also Lebanon fire.
Moore pushed back against the claims. She said she has not received complaints about the issues until Justice brought them up at Monday’s meeting.
County attorney Mike Jennings said the concerns raised by Justice in regard to what is actually going to be asked of the agencies, both financially and with personnel, were addressed repeatedly in the two years of meetings and discussions about co-location.
“We’re not trying to take control of anybody else’s employees, but we have to operate this building, and I don’t think the money that we were asking you all to pay was construction costs. We were asking you to help pay some of the increased additional operating expenses,” Jennings said.
“The rest of the story is that every city entity that I went out to talk to told me, ‘Tell me how much the building is going to cost and then we can talk about it.’ Well, we spent a lot of money getting plans drawn that everybody, I thought, put their input in and agreed to. We had a meeting with every agency and put up different options and floor plans, and everyone picked what they thought was the best so that we could establish a cost and be able to go out to everybody’s funding entitles and say, ‘This is the price for it,’ and that’s where we are today, and I will accept full responsibility that it has not met the expectations of the agencies that are involved,” Hale said.
He said the board and the agencies still involved in the process should move forward with the best decision they could make for the residents of Wilson County.
All of the parties involved stressed their disagreements, and differing views were discussed with the best interests of the county in mind. All agreed each agency and municipality was a respected and valuable part of the community, which keeps the door open for continued discussions as the April 24 deadline nears for a decision on the co-location bid.
“I want to say something. First off, 911 is doing a great job,” Bryan said. “And I want so say this. I’m sitting in a different position that these cities are, me and Joey, both are sitting in a different position. We’ve got to do what’s best for the entire county, and we went into this thinking that it was going to come together. OK, at some point we need to realize it doesn’t sound like it’s coming together, people. I can tell you one thing, and you can shake your head if you want, we are working together to make it work countywide, but some people have to make some decisions.”
Chandler said there were several issues that led to Mt. Juliet’s decision to step back from co-location. He said many of them had to do with the culture and sense of community within Mt. Juliet police, in addition to policy, administrative and financial issues.
“Ultimately when it came down to it, and our elected officials were invited for the meeting, and they learned about the project at it’s final stage, they were updated throughout the whole process, as well. We got together with our risks and our opportunities and looked at those, and we still determined that right now, how it stands, we have to stay at our current facility,” Chandler said. “It wouldn’t be advantageous for us to come here. Part of the things why it is the way it is, and things could always change, but the way it is right now is because pay is not equal amongst all the staff.
“Could you imagine that you’re working for Mt. Juliet sitting in here? Lebanon may or may not make more, just as an example, or a county dispatcher. So what happens when they have an opening? Who are they hiring from? The lowest paid agency, right, because they’re just walking over and sitting in a different seat, so that’s an issue. The operational policies are an issue. The distance that we as a city would have to travel out here is an issue.”
Chandler stressed Mt. Juliet’s decision to step back from co-location didn’t mean the city or the department won’t work with Wilson County 911 in the future. He said it has an interest to continue its relationship and help bring the best services to the residents of Mt. Juliet.
The board recessed the meeting until March 25 at 4 p.m., at which point it would make a decision on a bid from the architect. In the next two weeks, all of the agencies involved plan to continue discussions and negotiations that surround the issues and challenges of co-location.