Lewis County will not consolidate its 911 dispatch services with Thurston County 911 Communications (TCOMM), after a contracted study revealed no major cost benefits, no staffing efficiencies and little “political will” on either side.
Results from the study were initially shared with county commissioners last November, but this week consulting firm DELTAWRX presented to local stakeholders their final recommendation: that the county should focus its resources on addressing its issues locally.
Now, with the merger off the table, officials must figure out how to address what DELTAWRX found to be “severe staffing shortages” and “friction and distrust” between the county and local emergency response agencies.
Meanwhile, longstanding tensions have festered.
“We’ve been working on this for the past six years, working with the county for the past six years, and we’ve gotten nowhere in improving services or improving our rates in regards to that service,” District 6 Fire Chief Ken Cardinale said Wednesday.
Relationships between the county’s 911 center and emergency responders have been chilled for years, with chiefs critiquing the county for failing to address persistent issues, including those around antiquated equipment. The “chaotic nature of emergencies in general,” County Manager Erik Martin added, can easily create conflict.
But first responders, Cardinale said, still feel like they’re not being heard or included.
“That’s a key issue that needs to be addressed as we move forward …” he told county officials. “It goes back to the issue of trust. You’re expecting us to give you feedback based on a powerpoint presentation that gives us no details.”
Chehalis mayor and former police chief Dennis Dawes lambasted “constant studies” at the county level, and highlighted what he described as stories from chiefs regarding “service issues.”
“I don’t want to wait another year or two to make a decision” about how to move forward, he said.
Deciding how to improve Lewis County’s emergency communication center — which could include major reorganization — will require making sure local partners don’t feel excluded, Martin said.
“That’s obviously a feeling today, and I’m disappointed in that,” he said.
In transforming its 911 center, Lewis County could take after Thurston in allowing its communication center to break off from local government to become its own nonprofit. Officials also discussed new governance structures.
Regardless of the direction the county goes, short-term issues such as underfunding and understaffing will need to be addressed first.
“You have a pretty severe staffing shortage that’s impacting operations and service levels,” said Monica Lynn, of DELTAWRX. “That’s one of your biggest challenges.”
Staffing is falling short by as many as 10 people. Part of the problem, according to Lewis County 911 Administrator Scott Smitherman, is just how “incredibly difficult” the job is. Staffers go through nine months of training, and the county doesn’t hesitate to drop trainees who aren’t likely to make it all the way through.
Staffing at 911 communication centers is a nationwide issue, Lynn said, but in Lewis County, understaffing is especially acute.
To fund an increase in staff — and to address antiquated radio infrastructure responders currently rely on — Dawes and County Commissioner Gary Stamper said a sales tax hike is likely in order.
“I know a lot of people don’t like to pay taxes, but I think it’s a waste of tax money that irritates folks more than the proper use of tax money, i.e. public service and getting the correct equipment, getting the right personnel,” Dawes said.