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Sheriff slams 911 operation

November 22, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG - Expressing displeasure with the way 911 calls are dispatched and saying he was worried about his officers' safety, Sheriff Randy Smith got into a heated discussion with the director of Berkeley County's 911 center during Thursday's Berkeley County Commission meeting.

Smith said that if changes are not made, one of his officers is going to be seriously injured or killed.

Central Dispatch Director Mary Kackley attributed many of the sheriff's concerns to 911's equipment.

By the end of the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, the County Commissioners mandated that one dispatching change be made. Other problems should be worked out during a private meeting between Smith, Kackley and others, they said.

Under the change the commissioners implemented, calls are no longer to be dispatched as "in the area of."

For example, during a recent bank alarm, dispatchers first relayed the call to police as being in the area of Edwin Miller Boulevard, instead of naming the bank and giving its address, Smith said. There are several banks along that road, a four-lane highway outside Martinsburg.

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That change is to take effect immediately, according to the commissioners' unanimous decision.

At the beginning of the discussion, Smith gave each of the commissioners a thick packet of papers, which he said centered on what he deems to be problems with the 911/Central Dispatch office.

After Smith noted his first complaint - that on Sept. 30 dispatchers did not acknowledge his radio transmissions as he was trying to pull over a speeding driver until after the driver was stopped - Commissioner John Wright called for the discussion be held in an executive session out of earshot of members of the public and the media.

That motion died because neither Commissioner Robert Burkhart nor Howard Strauss seconded it.

Kackley defended her dispatchers in regard to the Sept. 30 incident, saying they heard only bits and pieces of Smith's radio transmissions. They may not have heard the rest because traffic quieter than 20 decibels does not come through 911's console, she said.

Or, she said, it could have been related to the fact that some dispatching equipment was damaged over the summer by lightning strikes. Those problems started Sept. 30, she said.

"I don't think it's a radio problem. I think it's an attention problem," Smith said.

He said deputies scattered throughout the county heard his radio transmissions during that incident and other incidents he outlined for the commissioners.

After additional heated exchanges, Burkhart raised his voice, too. "Sit down, go over the procedures and work them out," he said.

Smith said he has tried to meet with Kackley several times, but she walked out. Kackley said that was not entirely true. "That's all I'm going to say," she said, declining to elaborate.

On a related issue, Smith alleged that 911 dispatchers do not keep track of the location of officers. To prove his hunch, he said he did not go 10-7 - code for off duty - for a month. Not once did a dispatcher try to check on him, although he said there were a few times, at seemingly random times of the night, when a dispatcher would mark him as being off duty, even though he had not called in such information.

Kackley said she did not know Smith did that until he told the commissioners Thursday.

"I don't want you to think I'm nitpicking. We've got serious problems," Smith said. "There's no doubt in my mind that there's an anti-police atmosphere in the 911 facility."

Kackley disputed that, saying after the meeting that she formerly worked as a sheriff's department dispatcher and that her husband was a deputy for 15 years.

Smith clarified his "anti-police" statement after the meeting. "When I say anti-police, I mean her policies and procedures that she has in place over there," he said.

Central Dispatch's facility is adjacent to the sheriff's department.

Policies that deal with dispatching procedures should be formed with input from all emergency agencies, not dictated by Kackley, Smith said.

"You have the tail wagging the dog," Smith said.

A date for the private meeting was not set during the County Commissioners meeting.

The commissioners said that in addition to Kackley and Smith, those present at the meeting should include the county's legal counsel and administrator, and representatives from the West Virginia State Police and the Martinsburg Police Department.

Although the state police and city have their own dispatchers, calls to them occasionally are relayed through 911.

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