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, spinning more than a year and a half, from local government officials in order to verify claims made that night. The findings of this investigation are 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.
Value of ECAB?
The Emergency Communications Advisory Board (ECAB) serves as an advisory board for Cowley County Emergency Communications (CCEC).
It provides an outlet for local first response supervisors to provide professional feedback and suggestions. But it is an advisory board only and its votes do not carry any budgetary authority. The Cowley County Commission and county administrator are responsible for all funding decisions.
At times, this has created some tension between the county fire and police chiefs who comprise a majority of the board, and the county officials on it who make actual budget recommendations to the Cowley County Commission — most notably CCEC Director Carl Fortner; County Administrator Lucas Goff, who also still serves as MIS/GIS coordinator; and Cowley County Emergency Management Director Brian Stone.
One such instance involved a motion by Arkansas City Police Chief Dan Ward, seconded by Ark City Fire Chief Bobby Wolfe, to support funding Mobile Data Terminals (MDT) for the Ark City Police Department. Although the measure passed 7-1, the county declined to authorize the funds.
This apparently caused Ward to question the value of ECAB. In a Aug. 4, 2016, email to Fortner and former county administrator Jeremy Willmoth, who now is the city manager of Winfield, Ward said:
“I was very disappointed in this process and I question why we even meet as an ECAB board. It is clear this decision was made prior to any vote or recommendation of the board. This decision by the county not to continue our mutually beneficial cost sharing was short sighted and the straw that broke the camel’s back” on his decision to scrap using Mobile Data Terminals anymore. (For more, visit http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2B2.)
Ward has not attended any ECAB meetings since the July 14, 2016, meeting at which his funding request was denied, although ACPD Capt. Mark McCaslin has been going in his stead.
Feedback from Fortner
Fortner disagrees with Ward about the role and purpose of ECAB, he indicated in multiple emails over the past year.
“(I) encourage Chiefs Wolfe and Ward to remain active in the (ECAB) group,” Fortner said in an email last month to Ark City Daily Bytes. “We value their input, even if we don’t always agree. But they are given a seat at the table.”
He also has expressed a desire for ECAB members to continue to express their opinions.
“Going forward, I hope that we can agree on more than we disagree,” he said in a July 1, 2016, email to other ECAB members. “If not, I hope that you realize that I think enough of your opinion to ask for it.”
In contrast with that statement, though, Fortner shared a slightly different point of view this week.
“CCEC personnel will continue to support emergency responders throughout the county, but we may not always agree with course they try to steer. We value the response community’s input, but also recognize that we are responsible things they are not,” he posted in a comment on the Daily Bytes website.
“Firefighters put out fires. Law enforcement officers enforce criminal law, and Emergency Medical Service personnel render aid to the sick, injured and dying. We don’t tell any of them how to do their jobs, and don’t appreciate it when they try to tell us how to do our’s.”
The rest of Fortner’s statement can be found in the comment section of the prior installment in this series at http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2GO.
EMS off ECAB
Although ECAB was formed in 2013 as 911 dispatch consolidation gained steam, inheriting the work of the 911 Steering Committee, its membership has been in some flux since then. The most notable change was the subtraction of the only EMS representatives on the board.
In February 2016, Stone sent an email to ECAB members about possible ECAB membership changes. Despite the board not holding an official vote, the ECAB group discussed and showed no objections to “many proposed changes,” according to Stone.
“As you all know, Winfield EMS had a member on the Board prior to their consolidation into the Winfield Fire Dept. We need to get that membership issue resolved before voting on all of the amendments,” Stone wrote.
“(Former Winfield fire marshal) Dennis Darby made the recommendation of using their Paramedic that was on shift the day of the meeting as their member. … The Winfield Fire (Department) stated they would prefer that ACFD/EMS only have one member, which would be the Fire Chief and then use their EMS Director as a backup or proxy. They have said that if Ark City’s EMS Director remains on the board they will need a medical person as well.”
“My personal preference is for there to be medical-specific representation on the ECAB,” Fortner chimed in.
“If there is medical community representation on the ECAB, then we can be sure we’re in compliance with the most up-to-date generally accepted medical principles of pre-hospital emergency care delivery. Having paramedics involved in our program should also serve as a hedge against any future requirement to have local medical control provided by a physician. Whether there is more than one medical representative on the ECAB, I’ll leave to the membership. But I do believe there should be medical representation.”
“They could still attend the meetings but wouldn’t need to have a vote,” offered Udall Fire Chief Randy Hoffman, chairman of Cowley County Rural Fire Chiefs Association. “Their vote would be from Chief Wolfe, Just as WFD vote is Chief (Alan) Stoll.”
Former Sheriff Don Read replied that he agreed with Fortner. Hoffman suggested retaining the EMS member from Ark City and giving Winfield Fire-EMS one additional member, too.
“I have spoken with Chief (Wolfe) and we agree that having a Paramedic representative at the meetings is valuable, but that representation really doesn’t require an additional vote,” Stoll said. “This would give Chief (Wolfe) and I the flexibility to bring duty personnel.”
Before the next meeting in March 2016, Stone sent an email reminding ECAB members of the upcoming meeting.
“From the sounds of things, my services are no longer needed so I won’t be at the meeting,” responded Arkansas City EMS Director Jeri Smith.
“I would actually prefer not to be a proxy. Perhaps one of the Shift Captains would be willing to do this in the Chiefs absence.”
Stone noted he had no idea how membership would look going forward. “We’ll see what the group decides as a whole,” he said.
Ultimately, the board decided in March not to have additional EMS members for the two fire-EMS departments, but no one told Smith initially.
“I’m not on ECAB anymore am I?” she asked Stone in an email April 4, 2016. “That is correct,” he replied. “That was done at the last meeting. I apologize as I meant to send a note, but of course, I failed to do so.”
Smith has not attended an ECAB meeting since January 2016 and it is unclear if ECAB has had any paramedic representation since that time.
Smith’s removal and Ward’s absence have lessened the influence of Arkansas City public safety agencies on the county’s 911 decision-making processes — influence that already was fairly minimal, according to Ward — but nowhere is this more true than on a new sub-committee.
Last July, Fortner announced the formation of the ECAB Future Technologies Sub-Committee (FTSC), according to the minutes of the July 14, 2016, ECAB meeting.
“This group will envelop the Spillman SAA Committee members, and other emergency response community representatives with subject matter expertise on the countywide radio system, the Mass Notification System, the Active 911/CAD interface, and the paging system,” the minutes state. The FTSC meetings were set for two Thursdays prior to each ECAB meeting so sub-committee minutes could be prepared for the board.
The role of Goff at that time was to continue to be as technical specialist on the systems used by CCEC, including serving as a member of the FTSC, but Fortner said Goff would not steer the work of the sub-committee.
Minutes of the sub-committee meetings thus far show that its discussions have been solely between Cowley County personnel and the Winfield public safety agencies. No representatives of either ACPD or ACFD have attended any sub-committee meetings.
There also has been no representation from the rural fire departments of eastern Cowley County, even though the paging system many of them rely upon was cited as a major reason for the formation of the sub-committee in the first place.
Burden Fire Chief Dan McClaskey said in an email dated Sept. 6, 2016, that he “had not heard of such (a) committee or who the members are.”
He also criticized the creation of an additional series of meetings that are more difficult for volunteers to attend than personnel on the clock.
(For more about how the rural fire departments and the paging system, visit http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2GO.)
New CAD floated
One major issue being discussed at the sub-committee level is whether to switch to a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. The current system, provided by Spillman, was purchased a few years prior to consolidation in preparation for the move to a countywide system.
Local officials are concerned about what switching to a new system might cost, both in terms of time and money.
It took months to tie in the current Records Management System (RMS) being used by ACPD and ACFD, and that work could go back to square one with a new CAD.
“Over the past year I have been very displeased with the support and response from the County when it comes to Spillman and mobile CAD,” Ward said in an Aug. 4, 2016, email to Fortner and Willmoth. “The incident where we were unable to enter arrest reports in our RMS for months and we kept getting the run around set our department back and caused extensive back logs. When I finally went around the county and reached out to directly to Spillman, we got the problem solved within a day. As it turned out, it was just a training problem…”
Ward has been an advocate of remaining with Spillman, which he is familiar with from his time with the Lawrence Police Department.
But Fortner disagreed with the idea that the problems were on the county’s end, rather than Spillman’s, and he had strong words on the subject.
“Personally, I can’t stand Spillman software,” he replied to Ward the same day. “I’ve been in public safety communications since 1983, and have been using CAD software and MDT connectivity products since 1993. While you and other police chiefs might be able to get action from Spillman in a timely fashion, those of us on the technical side have considerable difficulty getting support out of them. For example, we have been waiting on Spillman for 2 months to get their mapping up to date… I have never worked with a product as difficult to use as Spillman.”
Fortner admitted that despite his distaste for software, which predated his hiring, the county was committed to using it — but he left the door open to a future change.
“I can tell you from first-hand experience that Spillman is not where it needs to be if they are going to compete in the public safety space,” he said. “Nevertheless, the purchase has been made, and we’ll have to make the best of it for the foreseeable future. With luck, Spillman will put more effort into supporting the products they sell. If it doesn’t improve, I will be the strongest advocate for replacing it as a (CAD) solution.”
But just three weeks later, at a Future Technologies Sub-Committee meeting that Ward did not attend, Fortner initiated a search for a new CAD.
“(Fortner) informed the sub-committee that the Spillman CAD does not meet the requirements of (CCEC),” state the Aug. 25, 2016, FTSC minutes. “He noted that Spillman Tech Support often takes months to resolve issues that should be cleared up within seven to 10 … business days. While most users seem satisfied with the (Joint Records Management System), the base product (CAD) is probably not going to serve (CCEC’s) needs in the long run.”
“Furthermore, while CAD can perform many functions standard in the law enforcement community, it does not handle everything needed for fire and/or EMS,” the minutes continue. “(Fortner) reported that the next APCO Conference (in) 2017 will be held in Denver, and that CCEC will probably send some folks there to meet CAD vendors, and to learn where the industry is going.”
At the Nov. 3, 2016, FTSC meeting, Fortner noted that Spillman had been bought out by Motorola Solutions.
“Neither company has reported what impact — if any — this will have on user agencies,” those minutes state.
“Cowley County may, or may not, benefit from the Motorola acquisition. No additional support issues — besides those already known — were reported.”
There has been no further discussion of looking at a new CAD in either the emails provided to Daily Bytes or minutes of subsequent meetings.
Editor’s note: This is the fifth part of a multi-part series. Prior installments can be viewed at:
- Part 1: Consolidated 911 dispatch issues highlighted in series of public emails — http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2AH
- Part 2: Vote on MDT software exposes schisms on 911 ECAB advisory board — http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2B2
- Part 3: Request for increased officer safety turns into dispatch funding discussion — http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2Ek
- Part 4: Friction seen in disputes between county, rural fire over call sign, pagers — http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2GO