Future of county 911 system under review

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

CIRCLEVILLE - Pickaway County's 911 Planning Committee took the first step Tuesday to explore the future of the local emergency call system and how to best serve the citizens of the county.

At issue, though, are the conflicting opinions about how best to accomplish that goal.

Currently, 911 calls are routed to two different call centers - one at the Circleville Police Department, which receives all 911 calls from landlines within the city limits; and one at the Pickaway County Sheriff's Office, which receives everything else including all cell phone calls even with the Circleville city limits.

The committee's three members - Jay Wippel, county commissioner; Don McIlroy, Circleville mayor; and Mike Struckman, Scioto Township trustee - approved a motion Tuesday that will allow the committee to establish an advisory committee to provide recommendations for a plan to consolidate the two call centers into one and to upgrade equipment and systems necessary to meet upcoming requirements for the 911 system to receive text messages and photos as well as voice calls.

The commissioners have publicly stated their belief that the updated call center should be a "new, free-standing 911 dispatch center" instead of remaining an operation of the sheriff's office, and the 911 Planning Committee will now begin studying staffing requirements, policies and procedures and compensation for the countywide system for services rendered at such a facility.

Sheriff Robert Radcliff, however, said the 911 call system and dispatching are two different things.

"According to the county prosecutor, the responsibility for dispatching in a county with 750,000 population or less is up to the sheriff," Radcliff said. "911 is a separate entity, but in this county it just happens to be in the same location. It makes no sense to call 911 and then have that call transferred to a dispatch center to have that call dispatched."

Judy Wolford, Pickaway County Prosecutor, confirmed her opinion after reviewing state statutes in the Ohio Revised Code.

"There's a totally separate group of statutes for 911 and 800 megahertz dispatching," Wolford said. "You would still have to forward 911 calls to the sheriff's office to get them dispatched. The sheriff's office has control of that by statute."

"I'm accountable to the citizens of this county, and I don't have any intention of not doing what our office is mandated to do by law," Radcliff said.

Questions still to be addressed by the planning committee and its new advisory panel would be who would operate the proposed free-standing call center and how the operation would be funded.

Wippel said the commissioners believe it should be moved out of the sheriff's office because the current facility does not have the space to accommodate the upgraded equipment and extra staffing required to combine the city and county systems.

"There's just not enough room at the sheriff's office," Wippel said. "There's no way it will fit in the existing space."

Radcliff said while the current radio room may not be adequate, there is room inside the sheriff's office to move the communications center to a different area of the existing facility.

"We're already in a secure building with all the infrastructure necessary that was built through a tax levy the public paid for," Radcliff said. "All the communication equipment necessary is already in this building; it's just a matter of moving it from one room to another. It doesn't make any sense. It would create a whole new beaurocracy for something when it just isn't necessary."

Radcliff said he also is concerned about staffing during times of critical emergency when extra manpower is needed to answer incoming calls, citing the recent storms that caused widespread property damage near Ashville.

"That night, we had to pull people out of the jail division to answer the phones," Radcliff said. "That was just the most recent example. We've also had a couple of hostage situations where our dispatchers were tied up on the line with the people involved and others had to come in to cover the other phones. Where we are, we have trained staff available 24/7, but if you're in a free-standing building at 10 o'clock at night, who's going to be available to do that? Where's your staff going to come from?"

Chief Wayne Gray, Circleville Police Department, said he also has a few concerns he would like to see addressed before any decision is made.

"I'm all for looking for anything that will improve service or operations," he said. "But we need to look at all aspects and details and make sure we're making a good decision."

At the city's dispatch center, he said, dispatchers not only field 911 calls from city landlines but also any regular calls for service, as well as greeting people who come in off the street with complaints or needs.

"They're the first ones to deal with those situations," Gray said. "I don't think there will be any major changes for a while, though, while we're trying to evaluate and see if it's something we can do."

Gray said he also is concerned about backup plans in the event one system or the other crashes.

"There have been a couple of situations, one where the sheriff's dispatch center lost power and they had to come here to operate," Gray said. "There have also been times when our phones didn't work, and we had to depend on the county to forward calls for us. That's a big concern to me. This is so new, we just want to make sure we answer all those questions, but I'm not opposed to it if it's going to be cost-effective and efficient."

The 911 Planning Committee's advisory panel will include the committee's three members, representing the county commissioners (Wippel), the city (McIlroy) and the township with the largest population (Struckman); each municipal police chief in Pickaway County; the sheriff; each fire chief in Pickaway County; and the county's emergency management director.

A date has not yet been set for the next planning committee meeting.