The Cowley County consolidated 911 dispatch center came under scrutiny during a January 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.
Protecting officer safety
Peace officer safety is a topic that is prevalent nationwide, following a recent increase in ambush killings targeting law enforcement personnel.
“Officers killed in the line of duty from gunfire have increased 71% from (2015),” Police Chief Dan Ward said in a Nov. 21, 2016, email to Carl Fortner, director of Cowley County Emergency Communications (CCEC). “These incidents are increasing at an alarming rate and we must take action to ensure our officers safety.”
In an attempt to keep his officers safer, Ward sent the email to Fortner to address the importance of his department’s role in building awareness.
“The amount and quality of information we receive from the dispatcher is more important than ever to ensure our officers safety. Ambush attacks on law enforcement officers are a real and present danger. Dispatchers are the front line in gathering and disseminating the information each officer requires to make response decisions,” Ward said.
Ward also said dispatchers staying on the line with callers until officers make contact will help them to determine the level of danger and collect as much information as possible. “There should be no reason to disconnect until the officer has made contact with the caller,” he said.
“Names of callers are important,” Ward added. “Anonymous calls should be scrutinized for authenticity as there have been examples just this year that the shooter is the caller trying to get officers to respond and then meet them with an ambush situation.”
One of Ward’s suggestions was that 911 keep the caller on the phone until initial contact with law enforcement occurred.
“We must all work together to create a safe working environment for our officers. … I know these changes will have a significant impact on resources,” Ward said, “however desperate times call for desperate measures.”
CCEC agrees, but…
Fortner agreed in an email reply that the number of public safety responders being attacked was continuing and worsening.
He also said he had begun working to try to combat the problem. “I agree that we should take a proactive approach to responder safety, and I am committed to doing that,” Fortner said.
“That having been said,” he continued, “I am concerned that our current staffing levels will probably not be sufficient to keep every caller on the line all the way to officer entry/contact. It is certainly a goal we can work toward, but I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver.”
Fortner explained that four dispatchers are on duty at the same time only during short overlaps and three are on duty together during periods of peak activity, such as 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., but many times, there are only two — especially from 6:30 to 8 a.m. and sometimes until 10 a.m.:
“This is hardly enough to support our countywide operational tempo as it is, much less effectively support this increased officer safety initiative.”
A new communications officer was set to be added last month, Fortner indicated, to create a nighttime “power shift” and help to cover for illness.
Also, he said, “I have asked our Human Resources Officer to determine how much it would cost to hire two additional supervisors for the night shifts, and provide them with 30 days worth of supervisory instruction. … we’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got, but some financial assistance from Winfield and Arkansas City would certainly help meet our mutual goals. All we really need beyond what we the County has already provided, is the two additional Communications Shift Supervisors.”
“While I know budgets remain tight — and they do for us as well — do you think Arkansas City and Winfield could pay for the two additional supervisors?” Fortner asked. He said the employees would remain under the management control of the county, but the Emergency Communications Advisory Board (ECAB) — “representing their interests” — and Fortner would provide “oversight.”
“Carl,” Ward replied the next day, “when I first read your response I thought you were saying we needed to pay extra if we wanted our officers to be safe. Then after I thought about it I realized that is not something you would ever say.
“While I do certainly understand your staffing and budget woes, requesting funding from the city for a county employee position is not something I would ever be inclined to advocate,” Ward added.
“The reason I say that is the citizens of Ark City and Winfield are already paying for those positions. In fact, they are paying about two-thirds of the total budget. … Cowley County has a unique situation in that roughly 1/3 of the total population lives in Ark City, 1/3 lives in Winfield, and 1/3 lives in the rural areas. This is very helpful when it comes to funding your county wide agency through taxes as all citizens pay (911) taxes and property taxes.”
Ward argued that any extra funding kicked in from the cities would take the system back to the days before dispatching was consolidated at the county level, when the two cities footed the majority of the bill, but still provided dispatching coverage to the entire county.
“To transfer more tax funds from Ark City and Winfield citizens to increase your budget would place an undue burden on those citizens and give unfair advantage to the rural residents. I am certain if we did shift additional funding to you, our respective residents would be understandably upset and claim that is taxation without representation,” Ward said.
“If you are in need of additional revenue, the only way I can see you be successful is to make a push for a county wide tax increase for that specific purpose. … If your expenses are more than 1/3 split of taxes currently being paid, I would say you would have a chance of getting it passed.”
Ward also forwarded Fortner’s email to Winfield Police Chief Danny Parker. “I started out requesting to have a back-up officer dispatched on certain calls for officer safety and the conversation turned to dispatch needing more funding for staff,” Ward said. “I wanted you to know where I stood as I assume (Fortner) did or will come to you as well based on his email.”
By way of compromise, Ward asked Fortner if seven scenarios he had outlined in his previous email — including crimes in progress, domestic violence, disturbances, suspicious behavior and interactions with mental health or suicidal patients — would result in the automatic dispatching of backup officers, in exchange for forgoing his request to keep callers on the line until contact is made.
“Your funding points are well taken … But there is always a follow-on expectation in consolidation efforts that the Communications folks will be everything to everybody, and that is difficult to sustain,” Fortner said.
“I have had more than one conversation with leaders concerned about officer/responder safety, but I’ve also been amazed at how quickly they abandoned their concerns for officer safety when they learned how much more it is going to cost. My point was that there are times when we struggle with meeting our current obligations, much less add to them. And that struggle — and expectations — must be managed.”
Fortner praised the Arkansas City Police Department for not being a “mediocre operation” and said, “I’m sure you can appreciate that I don’t want to have one here either. I want CCEC staff to perform a very limited number of tasks, but do them very well, replicable every single time.”
He said abandoning the request to keep callers on the line would help alleviate the strain on dispatchers immensely, but even more important would be to establish the backup dispatching as a countywide standard and making field supervisors aware that they are responsible for coordinating backup services if CCEC personnel are too busy with other calls.
“At the end of the day, we all share responder safety responsibility and certainly CCEC will do its part,” Fortner promised. In response, Ward drafted a memo on the desired procedure, which Fortner asked him to share with Winfield police and the Cowley County Sheriff’s Office.
Although this particular disagreement was resolved amicably, it would not be the last time funding concerns crept into a discussion of dispatching problems.
In the wake of last month’s City Commission meeting, Ward exchanged emails with Fortner and newly elected Sheriff Dave Falletti regarding the need for more funding, staffing, and training for CCEC as the prescription for the ailments discussed during the meeting. Those emails will be discussed in more detail in a future installment in this series.