Crawford County 911 dispatch services consolidation progress continues

Bennett Horne
Special to the Press Argus-Courier
Kibler Mayor Gary O'Kelley, right, listens as Crawford County Judge Dennis Gilstrap discusses the new budget for the county's consolidated 911 service during the Intergovernmental Council meeting held July 13 in Van Buren.

Progress continues to be made toward the final goal of consolidating 911 dispatch services in Crawford County.

After welcoming new 911 Communications Director Joanie Best at the end of June, Crawford County Judge Dennis Gilstrap presented the new consolidated budget as well as a Memorandum of Understanding for Operation of 911 Emergency and Dispatch Center to area mayors in attendance at the July 13 Intergovernmental Council meeting held at the county’s Department of Emergency Management Building.

The new operating budget for the consolidated system is about $1,000,614 and includes an allocation rate of $2.97 per capita for the county and its nine cities served by the system. The rate for Southwest EMS is based on an average of 8,000 calls per year.

“This new budget will start Jan. 1,” said Gilstrap. “We will use funds out of the current 911 budget between now and then. It’s a carryover of $800,000.”

Gilstrap decided to use the carryover now – and pay Best out of that carryover – until the new budget begins on Jan. 1, 2022, to give cities the opportunity to adjust their budgets accordingly.

“I didn’t want to hit the cities or the county in the middle of a budget year and say, ‘You’ve got to come up with X amount of dollars right now,’” said Gilstrap. “I did not want to hit the cities to set this up. The way we were set up, Alma paid its dispatchers, Van Buren paid its dispatchers, and the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department paid the county dispatchers out of their budgets. Now there’s going to be just one budget starting in January.”

Public Service Answering Points consolidation

The need for consolidating the county’s three Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs) from their locations in Van Buren, Alma and the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office to just one at the sheriff’s office came about after the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 660 in 2019 trimming the number of PSAPs from 102 to 77, a move Gilstrap opposed.

“The state’s goal was to get all the 75 counties working the same way,” he said. “I was not for the legislation here in Crawford County. When I spoke to the legislators in Little Rock, I used a hillbilly analogy to explain it to them. I said, ‘Listen, there’s 75 county judges in Arkansas. I wear a size 9 ½ boot. You can’t go buy 75 pairs of 9 ½ boots and have them fit all those judges. It’s the same way with these PSAPs.”

He continued, “In Craighead County, for example, the 911 system is not run by the county, it’s run by the city of Jonesboro. So again, it’s the issue of the size 9 ½ boot. What works for some doesn’t work for all.”

Following the legislature’s decision, the Arkansas 911 Board surveyed counties and came back with suggestions of how many PSAPs each county would need.

“We felt like we could sit and wait for them to tell us how to do it or we could just do it the way it worked for us,” said Gilstrap. “That report came out in the last couple of weeks, and it said Crawford County needed to consolidate to one PSAP.”

But the county had already begun its own consolidation process.

Memorandums of Understanding

“With what we have in place and with a director already on board, and we’re getting the (Memorandums of Understanding) together to work with the cities to get everything in place to start the first of the year we’re ahead of the state already,” said the judge. “We’re ahead of where they’re wanting to go.”

The MOUs explain the county’s responsibilities in the agreement and how the money will be distributed in accordance with the plan as well as what would happen to the equipment and how funds would be distributed back to the cities in the event the consolidated 911 system ever goes away.

Crawford County originally made the decision to go to a system of three PSAPs in 1991.

“At that time, I felt like we would have probably been good to go to one PSAP, but we didn’t,” said Gilstrap. “Now over the years money was spent and PSAPs were upgraded, and I believe our calls were being answered as efficiently as they could have. When you’re talking communications at any level there’s always going to be a hiccup somewhere in it. But in saying all that, I feel like ours was working well.”

He added, “Our system wasn’t broke. I can’t keep from saying that. It was not broke.”

The current 911 system in Crawford County is overseen by a 911 Advisory Board that’s made up of the Alma and Van Buren police and fire chiefs, the county fire coordinator, the EMS director and a citizen of the county.

“The advisory board met earlier this year and suggested we put together a committee that would look at the budgets and start putting an overall budget for consolidation that would address the salaries, how much money was coming in and how much money was going out, those things,” said Gilstrap. “I want to commend the people that were on that committee. The work they did made this go a lot smoother and helped us get to where we’re at now.”

The county then submitted a letter to the Arkansas 911 Board explaining its plan to go from three PSAPs to one.

Transfers from one agency to another

Gilstrap said the issue of transfers is at the root of the consolidation plan. Legislators hope the new plan will help cut down on the number of 911 calls that are transferred from one agency to another.

“There was a situation where some people in Central Arkansas made a call and got transferred two or three times, so the goal of the state was to improve the system and try to do away with transfers,” said Gilstrap. “The way we were set up here, we were almost a virtual system. Our equipment was set up to where geographically the calls hit the towers they should have hit. It didn’t always work that way but, for the most part, if you were in Van Buren then the call went to the city of Van Buren’s dispatchers. If you were in Alma, it went to Alma. If you were in the other areas, it went to the county.”

One instance where it didn’t work that way was in 2011 when there was an active shooter incident at the Crawford County Courthouse. Some calls to 911 reporting a shooter at the courthouse ended up going to Sebastian County, and law enforcement officers were dispatched to the Sebastian County Courthouse instead.

Gilstrap said 911 call takers in the consolidated system will still have to transfer calls to the Arkansas State Police when necessary, but extra training for the dispatchers may cut down on the usual transfer calls to Southwest EMS.

“Call takers/dispatchers will be EMD (Emergency Medical Dispatch) trained,” said Gilstrap. “Our goal is to alleviate that transfer to EMS dispatchers. We’ll be in one location and will be able to go ahead and dispatch the call. Getting them to EMD is a training issue as well.”

Paying fair share

Gilstrap said over the years there has been no charge for 911 dispatch work because each of the three entities paid their own dispatchers.

“The only way we could do it that way was because Alma was paying their dispatchers, Van Buren was paying their dispatchers and the sheriff’s office was paying theirs all out of their own budgets,” he said. “Now this consolidation will put the whole expense back on the county. And it’s not a money-making thing for the county or anybody else.”

The new act specifies that each city shall pay a fair portion of the bill.

“The way we’re proposing it to the cities is just like the sales tax revenue, that everything is set up on a per capita basis,” said Gilstrap. “So, everyone will pay on a per capita basis. EMS will pay on a per call basis.”

Gilstrap asked the mayors at Tuesday’s meeting to look over the budget and MOUs and make their decisions by Sept. 1 in order to give the county enough time to complete the process by Jan. 1.

“Our goal is to flip the switch and go from three answer points to one on Jan. 1, 2022,” he said. “That throws it to where everybody in budget season can look at the numbers and figure it out.”

Gilstrap said he feels good about the steps the county has taken thus far as it works to meet the Jan. 1 consolidation target date.

“I think we’re ahead of the curve on a lot of things,” he said. “I’m excited to get on with this program and get it done. Nobody will ever expect to hear me say that, but I am.”