Editor’s note: This is the first part of a multi-part series.

The Cowley County consolidated 911 dispatch center came under scrutiny during a recent meeting of the City Commission of Arkansas City.

After the meeting, Ark City Daily Bytes requested and inspected numerous emails, spanning more than a year and a half, from local government officials in order to verify claims made that night.

The findings of this investigation will be shared in this and future stories.

Citizens interested in speaking out on this issue are urged to contact their county commissioner. Contact information can be found at www.cowleycounty.org/commission and a map of the commission districts is located at www.cowleycounty.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Commission_Districts.pdf.

The inquiry begins

Commissioner Jay Warren on Jan. 17 asked both Fire Chief Bobby Wolfe and Police Chief Dan Ward how Cowley County Emergency Communications (CCEC) was functioning.

“People have the right to know,” Warren said.

Both chiefs initially were hesitant to speak, but at the urging of Warren, they shared some of the hurdles they had encountered. Read more at www.acdailybytes.com/consolidated-911-dispatch-issues.

“This was not something any of us intended to talk about publically and we certainly did not want to be talking about it at an open City Commission meeting,” Ward said in an email to CCEC Director Carl Fortner.

“Both Chief Wolfe and I tried to be vague in our answers however we were pushed to be forthcoming in our answers. At that point neither Chief Wolfe nor I had any choice but to answer their questions truthfully.”

Ward also informed Fortner that he had attended a meeting with Warren, City Manager Nick Hernandez and a county commissioner, during which Ward argued for more funding, personnel and training for CCEC.

“I expressed that … in no way would I advocate for your replacement,” Ward told Fortner, “as I felt you were doing as good a job as you could considering your limited resources. … My intentions have always been to ensure the safety of my officers and the public.”

County officials respond

While Warren was adamant that there are problems with consolidated dispatching that need to be exposed and discussed, other officials dismissed them as expected growing pains.

“A consolidated 911 center is the most effective way to run 911 in a county both being the most effective and the most cost efficient,” said Randy Hoffman, chairman of the Cowley County Fire Chiefs Association.

“There will always be procedural and training issues that will need worked through, but with the great way that emergency services in Cowley County work together I don’t see this as an issue.”

Then-County Administrator Jeremy Willmoth’s response included an unwillingness to meet with Hernandez about the issues that were discussed Jan. 17.

“At this point, I don’t see how a meeting with me is going to be very productive,” Willmoth said in a follow-up email to Hernandez. “I voiced my displeasure over what I believe was a completely avoidable public blindside and there isn’t anything left to be said in that regard. I hope you all are able to rebuild the communication between the city and the county.”

Willmoth officially became the city manager for the City of Winfield on Feb. 1. His successor as county administrator is Lucas Goff.

“I am not sure why it is this way, but it seems whenever anyone from Arkansas City is asked about joint projects — they can only focus on the negatives,” Willmoth added in a separate email.

He also questioned Ward’s statement about how many other 911 dispatch centers operate under the direction of county sheriffs.

“Do you sincerely believe that no human mistakes occur in law enforcement agencies?” Willmoth asked Ward. “I know of no infallible human institutions, regardless of who is in charge of them. I have never, nor would ever presume that mistakes would not occur. However, instead of focusing on those mistakes — I am troubled that you would not even acknowledge the good that is being done by the center.”

“My point is not to try to excuse the mistakes, but to simply say there is more to the story — and the inference from your comments is that the system is falling apart and nothing good or positive is occurring,” Willmoth added. “If given the opportunity, I would appreciate it if you would consider the lasting damage you have done to the morale of our employees who are trying to do a good job are unfairly characterized as making mistakes ‘a lot,’ with no recognition or acknowledgement of the terrific job they do — the majority of the time — as well.”

Dispatch statistics

CCEC’s call load for 2016 was 98,863 total calls, according to Willmoth. Of those calls, 98 percent were answered in less than 10 seconds. Only 14,190 of the calls were emergency calls.

In the 8,736 hours worked in 2016, the average number of calls processed each hour was slightly more than 11.

Since an average of three communications officers work each shift, this means each dispatcher handles between three and four calls in a “normal” hour — but actual call load can vary greatly, with multiple calls sometimes coming in simultaneously.

“Turnover in emergency communications runs about 17-percent nationally in any given year. Recent consolidations frequently cause that number to spike around 33-percent, and that is what we have experienced here this year,” Fortner said. “Because it takes us, at minimum, 16 weeks to train a new communications officer I wouldn’t want to lose one for at least two years. But in that two years, they can develop invaluable skills that will make them a better candidate for (police and fire) agencies.”

Pattern of emails

An investigation of the statements made by Ward and Wolfe began with a request for emails from several key city employees who interact with county officials.

The emails concern a variety of topics. Some are mundane, but others indicate certain patterns or cite specific incidents in which dispatching was problematic.

Some of the issues brought to light involve dispatching to incorrect addresses, while others complain of incorrect or incomplete notes in the county’s Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) software.

Emails conveying instructions to dispatchers regarding internal procedures — sometimes the same issue is addressed multiple times — were sent by Fortner on several different dates.

The issues addressed in the emails range from instructions not to give callers legal advice to admonitions not to text animal control officers, instead of dispatching them over the radio.

The sheer amount of emails referencing these problems could be construed as indicative of a larger “workplace culture issue.”

However, Fortner stated in one email that he is “building an ‘attention to detail’ culture within the Communications Center, and I’m racking up the nasty comments in exit interviews to prove it.”

He went on to say that he wants to know how and why CCEC failed, what it did or didn’t do to minimize negative outcomes, and how to plan to keep negative outcomes from reoccurring.

“I won’t ever apologize for having standards, and I will hold our people accountable when they miss the mark,” Fortner said.

Examples of error

Even given Fortner’s assertion that he is attempting to fix issues that do occur, there still are several concerning instances of dispatch error recorded in the emails.

One such instance involved a sexual assault victim waiting almost an hour to speak to a police officer because the dispatcher who took the call sent the officer to the wrong hospital.

Another set of emails complains of a report of a runaway child that was not entered into the National Crime Information Center, a computerized index used to share criminal justice information among agencies.

Still another example, which Ward shared during the Jan. 17 City Commission meeting, had dispatchers sending police officers in Winfield to their lobby even though the call actually was placed in the ACPD lobby.

“We have … been able to confirm that Chief Ward’s assertion that one of our Communications Officers — for whatever reason — incorrectly dispatched a Winfield officer to the lobby of Winfield’s police department instead of the correct location at Arkansas City’s Police Department,” Fortner said in an email to Ark City Daily Bytes.

“It should be noted that the Communications Officer involved is a former long time Winfield Police Communications Officer, and it may just have been a ‘force of habit.’ Nevertheless, the appropriate administrative actions will be taken to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”

“That said, it should also be noted that there was only a four minute response delay associated with the aforementioned error,” Fortner added. “The complaining party … merely needed an officer to generate an ‘after-the-fact’ traffic crash report.”

Response times are a great concern to first responders, especially those in the Emergency Medical Service field, and the State of Kansas monitors them closely and requires regular reports.

Even seemingly minor delays can have tragic effects. That’s because after four to six minutes, permanent brain damage will occur if a patient is not breathing.

After 10 minutes without oxygen, irreversible brain death will have occurred. CPR is administered is to keep the brain alive after sudden cardiac arrest by pumping blood to the brain with external chest compressions.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a multi-part series.

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