911 dispatchers angered over Flaggs’ short visit to center

Published 12:01 am Saturday, November 14, 2015

Vicksburg-Warren 911 dispatchers said Mayor George Flaggs Jr. needs to spend more time — about 12 hours — observing them and listening to radio activity if he wants to get first-hand knowledge of their job and the center’s operations.

Flaggs, who was supposed to visit the 911 communications center for three hours Friday, left after cutting it to an hour, saying he had a better understanding of the emergency communications center’s operations, praising it and promising to consider including money for two more dispatchers in the city’s 2017 fiscal budget.

But the dispatchers Flaggs visited said they were disappointed with the brief visit, adding one hour wasn’t enough to learn about emergency communications and what’s involved in manning the center.

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The mayor’s visit to the center came on the heels of a tour of the city’s fire stations with Fire Chief Charles Atkins Thursday that took less than two hours.

The tour and the visit to the communications center were part of Flaggs’ plan to visit city departments and spend the day learning how they operate. Previous visits included the city’s water and gas administration, working with a sewer department crew and a community services crew. He also visited community development.

“He gives the other departments eight hours, which is their scheduled work day,” said Shane Garrard, deputy 911 director. “Our scheduled work day is 12 hours. To get a full grip on how 911 actually is, you have to be here for a 12-hour shift.

“I know that’s a lot to ask of a public official, but I felt like he could have given us eight hours instead of three and only here for one. That’s the only thing I have with it. We’re a 12-hour operation; at least give us eight hours, and plug in (to hear radio traffic).”

Flaggs said after his visit he learned some things about 911, and the visit convinced him to add the extra dispatchers.

One of the issues Flaggs had with the communications center in the past has been the high volume of calls dispatchers receive during their shifts. He said after his visit the problem with the calls “is the lack of understanding in the community of what service is provided.

“A lot of their volume of calls are just people calling 911 just to ask for information, when they ought to be calling the city or calling the county,” he said. “I have to admit, the police department volume is much higher than the sheriff. We pay about 64 percent of the cost, and based upon the volume of calls, it may be 70-something percent.”

The high police calls, he said, was the main reason he supported adding two more dispatchers.

“We started seeking extra dispatchers before this (fiscal year), and now he’s telling us we’re going to have to wait until August of next year for your budget?” Garard asked.

Flaggs called 911 “an invaluable service to the city, but we need to educate our people on what our service provides.” He said he would have Channel 23, the city’s local cable channel go to the center to film public service announcements about the proper use of 911.

“The quality of service over there and the personnel were excellent,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for us to go out there and go into these areas and be able to quantify and qualify what people are telling us. I don’t go just to go, I go to get an understanding of it, and I did. We’re lucky that kind of service in Vicksburg, Mississippi.”

The dispatchers had a different take on the visit, pointing out Flaggs asked questions but didn’t take them up on an offer to listen in on the center’s radio traffic and calls.

“He don’t have a clue,” said dispatch supervisor Bobby Rufus. “He came in here and sat for an hour, and said that he knows all he needs to know. He needs to give me three straight shifts of 12 hours and then tell me something. We had the word he was giving us three hours today. We barely squeezed one out of it. I almost got the feeling it was an inconvenience for him.

“How are you going to know what an agency needs, if you’re not going to take the simple step of listening to their job as far as putting the headset on and (listening to) radio traffic and the phone? He didn’t hear a single phone call come in. All he heard was a ringing phone.”

Rufus had set up a headset for Flaggs to listen to radio traffic, but Flaggs never picked it up.

“We tried to give him a headset to plug in where he could hear the radio traffic, and he had no enthusiasm on hearing the radio traffic,” Garard said. “He’s made mention before in the newspaper he doesn’t listen to emergency radio. To me, every public official needs to listen to emergency radio if they’re going to have a say-so in spending and to stand behind this agency or any agency.

Dispatcher Darnell White said the mayor could have learned more about the center’s operations if he had listened to the communications traffic. He was also concerned about Flaggs’ trying to crunch numbers when it came to calls at the center.

“He just can’t use numbers to learn how emergency services act,” White said. “There’s no time frame as far as something big happening. You never know when something like that’s going to happen. You can’t just automatically assume that this is going to be downtime; you never know that. It’s impossible to learn anything about 911 unless you spend 12 hours.”

Paige Cook, a dispatcher who handled fire and ambulance calls on her shift. said Flaggs seemed more interested in fire department activity that any of the other departments.

“He can’t learn anything about emergency services in an hour,” she said.

“To me it seemed he was more worried about money than he was about the public. He was all about the numbers. He wasn’t worried about what we did or he wasn’t worried about listening. It was all about the numbers and how much it was going to cost to even get another dispatcher in here. We get called in on our off days.

“The (call) numbers will always change. He’s worried about the numbers. He thinks the numbers will stay the same between a time period, and they won’t, they’ll always change, you can have different stuff happen throughout the 24-hour period. It’s not always the same.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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