Commissioner: Salem needs to decide on county 911 dispatching

LISBON — While Columbiana County Commissioner Tim Weigle wants Salem to remain part of the county’s 911 system, he said any decision otherwise would need to be made sooner rather than later.

Weigle was responding to comments made this week by Salem City Councilman Cyndi Baronzzi Dickey, who said he told her the county could take over the city’s 911 duties. Her comments were made in the context about prioritizing spending needs within the Salem police department, especially after council voted to switch to full-time dispatchers.

Under the county’s 911 system, calls are divided based on geography between the county sheriff’s office and the Salem, East Liverpool, East Palestine and Columbiana police departments, with each serving as a 911 answering center. The county pays for all 911 equipment, maintenance and upgrades at the answering centers, while each department continues to assume responsibility for the cost of dispatchers. This is the arrangement insisted upon by the five law enforcement agencies when the system was developed about 15 years ago and favored by the county because of cost concerns.

The county is currently in the final stages of upgrading to Next Generation (NG) 911, which will be capable of accepting text messages, photographs and videos. Weigle expects it to be fully installed at each answering center by the end of January at the latest.

“I think my comment to her is if you want to get out of dispatching it will cost you because we’re well down the road with NG911,” he said, noting in new equipment and lines have already been installed at the Salem Police Department, all of which would have to be removed. “I told her we could do it, but it would have to be something we would have to work out.”

Weigle said his brief conversation with Dickey occurred on election night at the county Republican Party headquarters and was about whether the sheriff’s office could answer Salem’s 911 calls, thereby eliminating the need for full-time dispatchers. He said he told Dickey the sheriff’s office could take over answering Salem’s 911 calls, “but I did not tell her we would pay for their dispatching.”

If Salem council wanted the police department to get out of the dispatching game entirely, the city would have to contract with the sheriff’s office for full dispatching services, not just 911, but Weigle said he is unsure if that is what Dickey was suggesting. She wants to meet with him to discuss the issue further.

“The decision is up to them, but obviously I don’t want them to pull out,” Weigle said.

Dispatching has become a more complicated and sophisticated profession, which is one of the reasons Salem council agreed to the police chief’s request that they go to all full-time dispatchers. The state is now requiring dispatchers that handle 911 calls to undergo 72 hours of training by May 2018 to become certified emergency medical dispatchers (EMD) capable of providing additional assistance to callers with medical emergencies.

The 911 committee just unveiled a plan last week to lower the cost of EMD training for police departments by having the 911 director and deputy director become certified EMD instructors and then train local dispatchers themselves. The cost under the plan would be $320 per dispatcher — compared to $718 to $818 if each police department went to outside sources for the training –and the 911 committee would pay the cost.

Weigle still prefers the current arrangement, as do the law enforcement agencies serving as 911 answering centers. He said it is still preferable to a single centralized answering center operated by the county.

“We cannot afford that. There is not enough income coming in from the landline and cellphone (taxes) to cover the labor involved,” he said.