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.
Rural fire friction
Readers of this investigative series might develop the impression that most of the 911 dispatching issues have occurred only between Arkansas City’s public safety agencies and Cowley County Emergency Communications (CCEC), but that is an incomplete picture of the last 1 1/2 years.
Since his hiring in December 2015, CCEC Director Carl Fortner has faced opposition and criticism regarding policy changes from several other agencies, most notably the volunteer fire services that combat fires in Atlanta, Burden, Cambridge, Dexter and rural eastern Cowley County.
Two examples of this blowback concern the “re-branding” of the dispatch center’s radio call sign and the use of pagers for rural responders.
Changes in both areas triggered immediate, critical responses from several rural fire chiefs — responses that only became more heated when Fortner took action anyway despite initial concerns, leading to complaints that he was not listening to all of his constituents.
In both scenarios, Fortner defended his actions and stayed the course, although one of the changes seems to have been reversed recently.
Late last June, Fortner sent an email to all Cowley County police and fire chiefs, trying to determine if any of them had concerns about CCEC changing its radio identifier from “dispatch” to “Cowley Center.”
“I think you’ll see that I agree with everyone’s expectations of ‘clarity, brevity, and professionalism,’ and I do not plan to make wide-sweeping operational changes. I do, however, plan to do quite a bit of ‘tweaking’ in order to maximize efficiency and effectiveness,” Fortner writes.
“CCEC should continue to answer when field personnel call ‘Dispatch,’ ‘Winfield,’ ‘Ark City,’ etc., but I’d like for them to call you by identifying themselves as ‘COWLEY CENTER.’”
Other changes in radio traffic guidelines also were suggested in the email, including referring to fire districts by their number rather than the city in which they are based. Fortner said he’d prefer to wait for agreement by the Cowley County Rural Fire Chiefs Association on this last change.
He said he would like to implement the changes July 1, 2016, and asked for any concerns to be raised to him by 11:59 p.m. June 29, 2016. His original email was sent at 11:43 a.m. June 27, 2016.
“Like anything, it’ll take some time for everyone to adjust, but this is the direction I’d like to head,” Fortner said.
‘Cluttered and less clear’
The majority of those who responded to Fortner’s email — based on the emails obtained through several open records requests — were against changing the call sign from “dispatch.”
“I really think Dispatch is more of a correct name for the dispatch center,” observed Udall Fire Chief Randy Hoffman, chairman of Cowley County Rural Fire Chiefs Association.
“I can see calling communications by the identifier of ‘Dispatch’ or ‘County’ but ‘Cowley Center’ to me makes it cluttered and less clear,” said Burden Fire Chief Dan McClaskey.
“And I will not agree to referring to the fire departments as ‘Station #’ or ‘District #’ … The rest of the tweaks I don’t see a problem with.”
“I guess my question is Why?” Arkansas City Fire Chief Bobby Wolfe asked in a June 28, 2016, email to Fortner. “I would first like to have our dispatch times correct. This is a more pressing need. I would rather ‘tweak’ our department operations so we can get proper times…”
Cowley County Emergency Management Director Brian Stone appeared to be the only supporter of the change, as far as email is concerned.
“I do not have a concern with the suggested name change,” he said. “I can tell you that change is never easy. Thanks again, Carl, for being proactive and keeping us all in the loop.”
While he did not vocally support the change, Arkansas City Police Chief Dan Ward offered Fortner some encouragement. “Hang in there brother!” he wrote July 1, 2016, the first day the “Cowley Center” name went into effect. “Change is very difficult here in Cowley.”
Despite the opposition from fire chiefs, Fortner continued forward in his effort to change the radio identifier. In a June 30, 2016, email, he instructed his dispatchers on the new procedures they should observe:
“At 00:00:01 on July 1, 2016 we will be changing our station identification from DISPATCH to COWLEY CENTER. You may still hear field personnel refer to us as ‘Dispatch,’ ‘Winfield,’ etc., and I expect you to continue to answer them. But when you’re calling them back, dispatching a call, or verbally providing incident data, you should refer to our station as ‘COWLEY CENTER.’”
Again, the response was immediate — and noticeably more defiant.
“I am disappointed that you chose to go forward with this change when I didn’t see another department support it,” Hoffman said July 1, 2016.
“It makes no sense and is not commonly used. It doesn’t save time or words on the radio. It confuses the issue and will confuse other counties and agencies when trying to communicate with Dispatch. My department plans to continue calling dispatch by the correct name: Cowley Dispatch.”
“My stance as chief of the Burden fire department is I really don’t care what you call yourself. My department is going to continue to contact your staff on the appropriate county channels and refer to dispatch as dispatch. If you want to refer to your department as Cowley Center, that’s your choice as that department head,” McClaskey said. “Cowley County, Cowley Communications or Cowley Dispatch seems more acceptable to me but that’s not really my choice, only my preferences.”
“I agree with (McClaskey) all the way and believe Cowley Dispatch is what any agency would normally say when trying to contact,” Hoffman said July 3, 2016. “I don’t believe they would ever remember to call them something out of the normal like center. Hopefully some other chiefs will chime in after the holidays.”
In his first response to Hoffman on July 1, 2016, Fortner attempted to defend his decision to proceed with “Cowley Center” by using statistics:
“I regret that you are disappointed in my decision. Here are the factors that influenced my decision: (1) only 29 percent of the emergency response community expressed any concern about the change; (2) 71 percent either responded positively to — or remained silent on — the proposed change; (3) there are 118 Public Safety Answering Points in Kansas, but there will be only one COWLEY CENTER; (4) this will facilitate interoperability, not confuse it; and (5) the proposed change only affects what CCEC personnel will call themselves, not what they’ll call your agency.”
Hoffman did not seemed mollified in his reply later than morning. “I didn’t see anyone respond in favor of it and had several that didn’t,” he wrote.
“Believe me I am not the only one that feels this way. You hit the nail on the head we would be the only one, that tells me there is no reason to change. If anyone is in favor of this I would be interested in their reasoning.”
“This will be my last public comment on this issue,” Fortner responded. “Here is what I asked everyone to do: ‘If you have any concerns, please let me know by (11:59 p.m.) on June 29, 2016.’ Only four people expressed their concern to me. And if 118 agencies called themselves ‘dispatch’ we’d have real chaos on our hands!”
“I must have been one of the four that did respond,” McClaskey interjected that night.
“I’m not sure where the 118 departments being called dispatch comes from but if it is in reference to all communications centers in the state, then there is a lack of information or some misinformation going around. I can understand the potential for communication issues if all of these communication centers are going to at some point operate on the same frequency but if we are only operating on the counties channels with our county, then I don’t see where the 118 figure is relevant.
“My other concern expressed was that of referring to the counties fire departments by their district number as a station number. As I stated previously, I will not support any effort to refer to the fire departments as anything other than their corresponding city named department.”
Explanation and exasperation
Fortner on July 2, 2016, thanked McClaskey for his comments and said the idea of using fire station numbers was only a “floated suggestion.”
“I have no desire to force it on anyone, unless a consensus develops among the Chiefs,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll leave things as they are on this issue.”
“The point I was making about the use of the generic title ‘dispatch’ is that I want to distinguish Cowley County from any other Communications Center in the state,” Fortner continued, explaining that the county’s dedicated fire frequency can be patched in to any other frequency in the state by way of the Kansas Interoperable Communications System and a Motorola audio gateway housed at the 911 center in Winfield.
“In short, we can patch any of our frequencies, to any other frequency in the state should the need arise. And I want the called station — or unit — to know who exactly is hailing them.”
However, Fortner struck a slightly less conciliatory tone in a June 28, 2016, email sent only to Ward and Wolfe:
“I sent out the inquiry on station identification and brevity, not because I need the ECAB’s (Emergency Communications Advisory Board) approval, but because I value their input. The station radio licenses are held by the County, and not by any of the volunteer agencies that have expressed opposition. So, I can officially call the CCEC what I and the County — and not the volunteers — want.
“If the volunteers want to refer to the CCEC as ‘Dispatch’ as was popular in the 1980s, that’s their business. I would rather the CCEC’s transmissions — that are heard in scanner land, the courts, and by the (Federal Communications Commission) — sound much more professional and reflect a 21st century operation. But again, if I’m shouted down, then I will at least be able to demonstrate that I tried to give this county a professional operation.”
Fortner further diagnosed this simmering disagreement as being indicative of deeper issues, mostly relating to disputes over budgets.
“I don’t think it’s going to be long before some things that have been bubbling under the surface come to a head,” he predicted to the Ark City chiefs. “I have no intention of falling on my sword over either my station identification suggestion, or the (Computer Aided Dispatch) system that I had no part in acquiring. But I do know how supportive you’ve both been of my attempt to make CCEC more professional.
“As I mentioned from the outset, these are just some of the issues bubbling under the surface. Other than the budget allocated to run the CCEC … I try to stay out of money discussions. But, money is getting ready to be a BIG deal. Therefore, I’m trying to positively affect the things I can control — like how CCEC personnel sound on the radio — because there are soon going to be discussions about fiscal matters that I can’t control.”
(For more about how budgetary concerns are impacting the performance of CCEC and its relationship with other agencies, visit http://wp.me/p7A1jR-2Ek.)
Ironically, seven months after this exchange of emails, Fortner backpedaled on “Cowley Center” and changed the call sign again, this time to one of the suggestions preferred by Hoffman and McClaskey.
“Effective immediately, the station identification (Call-Sign) for Cowley County Emergency Communications is COWLEY DISPATCH,” he said last Friday in an email to county public safety agency chiefs.
The Cowley Center call sign was not the only area where CCEC and the Cowley County Rural Fire Chiefs Association did not see eye to eye, nor where Fortner apparently acted without the full input and consent of the rural fire chiefs.
Last August, Fortner emailed to Stone and then-County Administrator Jeremy Willmoth a report of pager usage by the rural fire departments, a service for which the county still was paying. He asked them to forward the report to the county’s ECAB partners.
“Recently, I asked our paging service provider for a 90-day Usage Report and the results are attached,” Fortner wrote.
“Paging services for those pagers that have had no activity for at least 60 — of the last 90 — days are strong candidates for service cancellation. I urge everyone to check with their folks to see who might want to refute elements of the Usage Report. If they are silent, I’ll assume that the report is accurate and service will probably be cancelled at the end of this month.”
Stone forwarded the email to the chiefs, instructing, “Take some time to review the report and if you see anything that needs to be refuted, please contact Carl directly.”
A month later, on Sept. 6, 2016, Fortner notified all public safety agencies in the county that the emergency pagers had been taken offline.
“The paging service has been cancelled, effective today. The Fire Department representatives to the ECAB Future Technologies Sub-Committee confirmed recently that Active 911 was working well with cell phone, home phone, and (or) email notifications,” Fortner said in an email sent Sept. 6. “As I mentioned recently, most pagers were not being used anyway.”
“We now need to collect all the pagers,” Fortner continued. “Many agencies have already sent theirs in, and we will be sending those back to the vendor. For the remaining agencies, please send them to me or Tyler Gaskill here at Communications. If a pager cannot be produced — or doesn’t work — the recipient agency will be billed for it. There is no provision for 911 money to pay for the actual pager(s), and the County is not responsible for them either. It will be most efficient if we can have everything sent back to the vendor by the end of September.”
Active 911 dispute
As it turned out, many of the rural fire departments still were relying on the use of emergency response pagers at that time. The pager system is a tried and true method of communicating emergency situations to outlying towns in eastern Cowley County, where reception still is an issue.
The new system to be used for those communications is Active 911, a platform that is supposed to be available to all emergency responders.
“At that (Future Technologies Sub-Committee) meeting, Josh Dobbs, Winfield Fire, assured everyone that all departments were effectively relying on Active 911, and not any pagers,” Fortner said in a follow-up email.
“The one exception noted was Cambridge, and that was only noted as Josh had not — at that time — been able to complete final testing with them. Josh reported that he did not think there was going to be any issues with Cambridge, because they were being set up the same (way) as every other department and none of the other departments were having any issues.”
Despite assurances from the fire representatives on the Future Technologies Sub-Committee that Active 911 was working well, though, a few rural departments said it was not. They criticized the decision to cancel the pager service before having a stable and reliable replacement in place.
“This may be an issue as there are still FD using pagers that can’t use active 911,” Hoffman replied later that day. “Winfield FD may have said active 911 worked for them but that is not all departments.”
“This was discussed at a ECAB meeting,” Hoffman continued. “No one reached out to these departments to see if they are using pagers or not before turning off service. This needs to be turned back on ASAP as now departments such as Cambridge and Atlanta still use pagers. If 911 wants to turn these off we ask that they contact the departments involved to make sure they have a working notification method. Please advise when these are back on as emergency calls may be missed.”
Fortner defends decision
Fortner maintained that he had given each rural department fair notice of the impending pager shutoff.
“I reached out to EVERYONE about a month ago and gave them a list of pager activity for the previous 90 days. Most pagers showed NO activity in the previous 90 days. I asked everyone to review the data provided by the vendor, and to notify me if they wished to refute the vendor’s data. I also noted that any pager showing no activity for 90 days was a strong candidate for disconnect,” he said. “I RECEIVED NO FEEDBACK FROM ANYBODY INDICATING THAT THEY THOUGHT THE DATA WAS INCORRECT. In fact, several departments started turning pagers back in almost immediately. Only today, after notifying everyone that the paging account was being cancelled did anyone voice ANY objection.”
Fortner said he had tried to follow up with Dobbs, with no success, and that he was forced to pull the trigger on the cancellation or risk paying another month’s bill of $3,000 for “a service that reportedly — and all available evidence supports — is no longer being used.”
Fortner added that he had suspended the cancellation request temporarily to try to resolve the issue with the rural departments in question.
“Please let me know — within the week — how you think we should proceed,” he writes. “I’ll let you know if the County agrees.”
McClaskey said Fortner was conflating his original request — that departments let him know whether they disagreed with the pager usage report — with a request for consent to cancel the service outright, in which silence equaled consent.
“I agree that you did reach out to all the departments regarding the pagers and use of. You requested any department that questioned your numbers to reply. I did not reply as I did not question the report,” McClaskey said in an email dated Sept. 6, 2016.
“I don’t know what changed at what time in the past but our pagers have not worked in more than 90+ days and we have had to rely on Active911 and radio traffic from dispatch to receive notification of any emergency calls in the Burden fire district,” he continued.
“To say that we are effectively relying on Active911 is not entirely accurate. It is not an effective option that we are relying on, it is what we (have) to rely on since the pagers stopped working. Also, I will add that I am having to pay for that option from my budget. Is the county or 911 going to take over paying for the Active911 licenses of my department as the pagers have (been) taken away and are no longer an option?”
“I know the answer to that question,” McClaskey concluded, implying the pager cost would be shifted to the rural departments in the form of Active 911. “Why can’t (these) expenses be paid for with the $3000 savings that the county will save by cancelling the pagers?”
He also appealed for Fortner to understand the challengers of running a rural department in which all of the volunteers have other jobs.
“As for the ECAB Future Technologies Committee, until today’s email, I had not heard of such (a) committee or who the members are so when you say the fire department representatives to said committee recently confirmed that Active911 was working well, I feel that this is in error,” McClaskey said.
“There have been no meetings I am aware of in which this has been discussed. While in the paid department setting, frequent meetings in which everyone is paid to attend as it is part of their job, in the volunteer world, we all work full time jobs not related to emergency services and attending frequent meetings is not possible.”
McClaskey also criticized the way Fortner had solicited feedback on the pagers via email replies, rather than in a traditional meeting setting.
“Calling meetings to discuss such items as pagers within a months’ time is not easily accomplished trying to fit meeting times in to each individuals scheduled,” he admonished.
“Decisions made involving such important issues such as pagers, in my opinion, should only be made after all entities affected have had time to review and respond. Email chains, while (they) are more timely, do not effectively allow departments to hear and discuss all matters related to discussions at hand.”
McClaskey did admit that he had no problems with Burden’s pagers being turned off, since they already had stopped working properly.
There was no evidence in the emails that the pager issue was resolved to both parties’ satisfaction. Fortner did not address the issue in a statement he emailed to Ark City Daily Bytes, and both Hoffman and McClaskey declined to comment further on the matter.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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