BOWLING GREEN – Up until August of last year, the 911 center’s operations had been under the office of the Pike County Sheriff. But after the passing of the 9-16 sales tax, last year, which people voted for, the center became a separate entity.
Slowly, and in measured steps, the center has been moving toward having its own permanent home adjacent to the sheriff’s office. Currently, it is housed in a temporary building similar to a construction site trailer, behind the sheriff’s office.
The move to separate the 911 operations from the sheriff’s office was made, Sheriff Stephen Korte said, to make things more efficient and to make the people of Pike County safer with reduced response times from first responders. The center covers all 670 square miles of Pike County.
Korte said he had been working as a dispatcher for the Sheriff’s office when the 911 center was first started in 1997. He had started with the Sheriff’s office in December of 1996. He became sheriff Jan. 1, 2009. Before that he had been a jailer, dispatcher and deputy for the department. He left the Pike County Sheriff’s office and joined the Bowling Green Police Department, staying with there for seven years before running for and being elected sheriff.
He is up for re-election next year after serving his first four-year term in office.
The biggest reason it was necessary for the 911 Center to be separated from the Sheriff’s Department, Korte said, is because of staffing issues.
“The jail control room and the dispatch control room were the same room,” Korte said. “What would happen on night shifts, the dispatcher would essentially become the backup and help run the control board for the jailers when they had to do other duties around the jail.
“That’s not good for either operation,” he added. “We had to increase staffing a little bit when dispatching moved out,” but it was something that needed to be done.
The 9-16 sales tax allowed for the establishment of a separate seven-member board, as mandated by the government, for the establishment of a 911 Center as a separate entity from the county.
The Pike County Commissioners appointed the first board, but in April, elections were held for those board positions. According to Korte, three of the appointed board members ran and were elected to the board.
“We went from having nothing to having a completely independently run, independently funded and independently operated 911 operations center,” he said. “They were out of here (the Sheriff’s Office/Jail) and over there (the temporary trailer) in less than six months. It was a lot of work.”
Before the terrorist attacks in September of 2001, the 911 Center housed in the Sheriff’s Office dispatched everything for the county except the Louisiana Fire Department and the Louisiana Police Department, Korte explained.
“They had their own separate dispatch operations,” he said. Also Bowling Green Police Department dispatched their own officers, or occasionally would have the Sheriff’s Department do it part time.
“The capabilities were always here, if need be,” Korte said of the system to dispatch first responders from all the county’s police and fire departments.
“Bowling Green PD still maintains some dispatchers during the day,” he added, because they still have people who show up in the department’s lobby to report crimes, etc.
“But if it comes in as 911 call, then it’s dispatched by the 911 operators. If it comes in on an admin line, their dispatchers handle it,” he said. In Lousiana, there is one person on dispatch duty eight hours a day. When there is no one on duty, their admin lines roll over to the admin lines at the Sheriff’s Department.
Another big change, he added, was before when medical emergency calls were made, they came to the 911 Center and then transferred to the hospital for an ambulance dispatch.
“That presented a huge amount of response lag time,” Korte said. Now the 911 Center can dispatch EMTs directly.
Korte noted that the Pike County Commission owns about seven acres of land adjacent to the Sheriff’s Department, and
At least one acre will be used to build a permanent facility for the 911 Center behind where the EMT vehicles are dispatched, about a stone’s throw from the temporary trailer where it’s now housed.
Everything is being done in measured steps, Korte added, because the center does not have a year’s worth of budget analysis to base future revenue/costs.
“They basically had to create a new branch of government for the center,” he said.
Having the permanent 911 Center located there will save costs, because it will still be able to use the antenna it’s using now. A hardened, weather resistant structure to house the radio equipment is already in place as well as a generator that will be able to power the new 911 building once it’s completed.
Even though each agency has its own radio frequency, the 911 dispatchers can hear all of them. If an emergency arises that requires it, all the departments can switch to the same frequency.
“All the fire departments run on the same frequency with multiple repeaters around the county for better service,” Korte said.
At the last board meeting, the 911 board voted to do what’s called simulcasting, Korte explained. They bought the equipment to do the simulcast off the Bowling Green and Louisiana communications towers.
Nine-one-one mapping had been done out of the assessor’s office, Korte explained, but now it’s done from the 911 Center in Bowling Green. Brining mapping in-house made finding addresses more accurate. When there is the need to add a new address, the 911 employee goes to that location with a GPS unit and gets an accurate reading.
The timeline for the new 911 facility is still a ways off, Korte said. An architect has not been selected. From the time the design is done to completed construction, he said it could take another three to four years. Korte did say the 911 Center has a four-year lease on the building it’s using now.
“The Pike County Commission is doing it in stages so they can pay for it as they go,” Korte said. “They don’t want to borrow money in order to build.”
911 Center Operations
Jim Porter is the director of operations for the 911 Center. He came to Pike County after working with Washington County’s 911 system for 10 years.
“Actually, in Washington County, we built it from the ground up,” Porter said, giving him the experience needed for expanding the 911 system locally.
Before the 911 system was built in Washington County, Porter said people had seven different numbers they had to call in order to get help.
“There was no 911 at all back then,” he said.
Korte said there are still about 16 counties in Missouri that don’t have their own 911 system. If someone in those counties calls 911, the call gets routed to a 911 center. But it’s difficult to know which one the call will end up at.
The system has the capability to activate all the tornado sirens in the county, too.
“After 9-11, the FCC mandated that all 911 calls in the U.S. had be answered by someone,” Porter said.
“Even if you have a cellphone or a landline that is not active,” Porter added, “the person can still call 911 and someone will answer, if the phone company keeps the system operational.”
“Sometime people give their children their old phone to play with,” Korte said, and accidentally dial 911.
“We get those calls here from time to time,” Porter said. “If the battery still has power, a lot of phones were programed that if you hold down the one key, it will automatically call 911.”
Porter said the move into the temporary building started in March of this year. Operations started in April.
“Since I’ve been here,” Porter said, “we’ve upgraded the 911 radio system, which the county has paid for some of that using 911 funds. The Pike County Commission and the Sheriff’s Department have done a great job based on the amount of funds they’ve had.”
The telephone tax was used before the 9-16 sales tax to prepare for the move out of the Sheriff’s Department. That ends at the end of this year, Porter said, and then the 911 Center will have to rely on the sales tax for funds.
Even though he wants to move into a permanent building, Porter said it was his job to make sure they are financially ready to do that before it can happen.
Having a new, permanent structure is beneficial for the county, he added. He was in communications when in the Army.
“If you’re in a firefight and run out of ammo, but you’re radio still works,” he said, “you can call in an air strike. If you run out of ammo and your radio doesn’t work, you’re in trouble.”
Porter said he was waiting on surveyor to come in that day to proceed with the transfer of the property from the county to 911. “And then the board’s plan is to start a parking lot, so the construction company can get its equipment back in there.
Currently, there is just gravel, but that can sink if the ground is too wet, said Korte.
On duty in the 911 Center Friday were Dot Smith, who has been with the system for 22 years; Ashley Ketterman, was in training and has been on the job for a month; and Katie Robertson, who has been with the Center for a year.
Normally, Porter said, there are two dispatchers on duty, but they still need two trained dispatchers working when there is one dispatcher in training. Although, he added, there are times when they need three dispatchers. Porter said he jumped in to help one day, as well.
All the dispatchers go through 40 hours of telecommunications training. And additional training for emergency medical dispatch. They are trained to help people by asking the right questions, Porter said. He has 13 dispatchers working, but he needs to hire one more full time. Each shift is 12 hours, and they work three days on, three days off.
“I’m hoping to have everyone certified by the end of the year,” he said.