The City Commission of Arkansas City took time during its meeting Jan. 17 to ask the chiefs of the Arkansas City Police and Fire-EMS departments about what they called “growing pains” at the Cowley County consolidated 911 dispatch center.

At first, the two chiefs were reluctant to speak. “We need to know guys. It’s serious,” encouraged Commissioner Jay Warren.

Fire Chief Bobby Wolfe attributed many of the issues to personnel turnover.

“Is this the system, or the people that are running it?” Warren asked. “The system is all new,” Wolfe replied.

“Is it putting anyone at risk?” asked Commissioner Charles Tweedy III.

“So far … we’ve been able to work around it,” Wolfe said. “It hasn’t caused any major delays that affect outcomes.”

Examples of dispatch problems

Pressed for examples, Police Chief Dan Ward said there have been instances in which incorrect agencies have been dispatched to respond to calls that actually originated in another city.

“We had that just today,” he said. “A guy picked up the phone (in the ACPD lobby), called dispatch and the call went out that the guy was in Winfield’s (police department) lobby. So we had to call them and tell them, ‘No, this guy is in Ark City.’”

“Is that because of our phones?” asked Mayor Duane Oestmann.

“That’s dispatch,” Ward replied. “That’s happened a lot.”

“Have we brought this up to them?” Warren asked. “Numerous times,” Ward said.

Ward also said that during a recent meeting of Emergency Communications Advisory Board, of which he is a member, a majority of the board voted for a particular change, but those in charge did nothing to act on the recommendation.

“Who’s on the other side of the board?” Warren asked. “That would be the dispatch director and the county administrator,” Ward said.

Command and control

Currently, any substantial changes in operations at the dispatch center have to come from the county administrator, who ultimately answers to the Cowley County Commission. Carl Fortner, director of Cowley County Emergency Communications, reports directly to County Administrator Jeremy Willmoth.

There is an Emergency Communications Advisory Board, comprising all of the emergency services chiefs from around Cowley County. But its role is advisory only, according to an interlocal agreement among all of the participating agencies.

In most Kansas counties that have consolidated their dispatching services, according to Ward, the sheriff’s office usually controls the dispatch center.

But Cowley County’s dispatch center was not set up that way.

“From what I’ve seen, (consolidated dispatch centers) run better when they are under the direction of the sheriff’s department,” Ward said.

“This is extremely interesting,” said Commissioner Karen Welch, who served as an Arkansas City dispatcher and communications supervisor for several decades. She retired in 2006.

City Manager Nick Hernandez indicated any issues that have developed basically boil down to who has “command and control” of the system.

Dispatch officially was consolidated at the county level on July 1, 2013, after years of coordination and planning that culminated in the signing by Ark City and Winfield of “memoranda of understanding” in January 2012.

Fifty-eight percent of voters approved a quarter-center sales tax in April 2013 to help pay the costs of a new consolidated dispatch and emergency operations center in the Cowley County Courthouse South Annex, located at 321 E. 10th Ave. in Winfield.

The dispatchers continued to work as county employees at the two police departments until September 2015, when they finally moved to the South Annex.

The consolidation process began under former emergency communications director Pat Leighter and her successor, former Arkansas City dispatcher Beth Leach. Fortner was hired in December 2015 to lead the newly formed Cowley County Emergency Communications department.