Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

February 27, 2014

Portion of tax to help 911 center

Barry Porterfield
Pauls Valley Democrat

bporterfield@pvdemocrat.com — Providing the funding needed to adequately man and equip a countywide 911 dispatch center is one part of a sales tax measure going before voters during an election on Tuesday, March 4.

The half cent tax for Garvin County was first approved by voters back in 2007. Now county officials are asking voters to renew the tax for another seven years.

With this new proposal on the ballot a portion of the tax revenues, 12 1/2 percent, is earmarked for the county’s 911 center first opened just a few years ago.

Among those pushing for the earmarked funds for 911 is Sheriff Larry Rhodes, who describes the center has being way more than just a 911 operation.

“It’s way more than a 911 center,” Rhodes said. “It’s a 24-hour, seven-day a week communications center.

“We need to be funded as an emergency communications center, a full service dispatching center,” he said.

“It’s important they be adequately funded. It delivers the best possible emergency communications to the county.”

The main focus of this tax funding is to bring up the salaries and benefits for dispatchers, something that Rhodes and 911 Coordinator Doug Walling are passionate about.

Both say it’s a matter of public safety to have a well trained crew of dispatchers who will stay and not leave for better paying opportunities elsewhere.

“We’ve got to get the salaries up so we’re not just a farm club for other places,” Walling said.

“This just gets us to where we’re even keel,” he said. “The staff has to have the funding to depend on. This frees up the funding that we do have to take care of the equipment.

“We’re the first voice they hear. We’ve got to have experienced and trained dispatchers to calm these people down and assure them that helps is on the way.”

Currently the 911 center does not receive any county funding. Instead, fees from cell phones and land lines have been used to support the operation of the center with things like mapping, equipment and a telephone system.

“These 911 fees are designed to keep that stuff running,” Rhodes said. “They’re designed for the equipment.”

Put simply, the fees are intended to help with all the other things in the center and not keeping the salaries of dispatchers at a competitive level.

“The biggest thing is to separate that funding so one part is for the staff and that frees up the money from the fees for 911 equipment,” Walling said.

Right now Walling says it’s difficult to keep experienced dispatchers on staff at the center. Many are lost to other dispatch centers because of the low pay, while others get trained but realize the work just isn’t for them.

Currently Walling says the center has a minimum staff with two dispatchers covering eight-hour shifts around the clock.

The sheriff is also quick to point out when the facility opened it started as a simple call center with contacts being sent to the appropriate agencies depending on where and the type of emergency.

Since then the center, now managed by the sheriff’s office, has transformed into a facility that performs the actual dispatching for a number of municipalities and first responder agencies.

It dispatches for most of the police and fire departments in the county at a low cost for the municipalities and no cost at all for the rural volunteer firefighters.

“They’re getting a bargain with this,” Rhodes said. “If voters turn this down we’ll take a hard look at our fees and how we do things.”

When it comes to numbers the center fields around 90,000 calls a year with only about 17,000 of calls falling into the category of 911, the sheriff said.

“It’s about catching us up to what others are doing in this area,” Rhodes said about dispatcher salaries.