Joanie Best prepares Crawford County for 911 dispatch department consolidation

Bennett Horne
Special to the Press Argus-Courier
Joanie Best began her role as Crawford County's new 911 communications director on June 28. The county is undergoing a 911 consolidation process which officially begins in January of 2022.

Joanie Best believes she was made to be an emergency services dispatcher. And now she believes the years she’s spent building a career in that difficult field has made her a perfect choice to lead Crawford County into its 911 consolidation process.

“I love it. Dispatch is me. And for 12 years it’s been me,” said Best. “If I had a chance to work overtime, I was there. I love being in the thick of it.”

Best jumped back into the thick of it on June 28 when she was hired as Crawford County’s 911 Communications Director.

“I am beyond happy to be back in a job that’s in my wheelhouse,” she said. “I feel like I was good at it and that I am still good at it.”

Crawford County Judge Dennis Gilstrap said Best’s “passion and experience to do this work” makes her an ideal fit for this job.

“I’m very tickled that we were able to hire someone like Joanie,” he said. “She’ll be the first to stand up and admit she has some things to learn, but she’s willing to learn them.”

The new director is tasked with, among other things, the responsibility of combining the county’s three Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs) located at the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments in Van Buren and Alma into one location at the Crawford County Jail. The county will begin taking calls and dispatching at the consolidated location in January.

The consolidation was triggered in 2019 when the Arkansas State Legislature passed Act 660, which calls for the reduction of the number of the state’s PSAPs from 102 to 77.

One thing the legislators are hoping the consolidation will do is to reduce the number of calls to 911 that are received by dispatchers but must be transferred to other emergency agencies. For example, a transfer can happen when a cell phone call from one city hits a tower in another area and is taken by a dispatcher located in yet another location outside the original call area.

The three PSAPs are currently in business-as-usual mode and will continue to work that way until January. When January arrives, Best will start supervising a staff of 12 dispatchers. Part of her responsibilities will be to oversee the process of making sure each dispatcher stays current on their certifications and training.

“Continuing dispatch training hours is important to me, even if it’s just done virtually,” she said. “I will make sure everyone is staying current on their training and will be making sure we are here for our community.”

She added that another aspect of her job will be to “assume a console and take calls” if the department is ever shorthanded.

The administrative aspect of the new position will have Best writing up policies and procedures to make sure the department has a standard operating process to follow. She will also work with the procedures addressed by the 911 board in its final consolidation report that was released earlier this month.

Best knows the county’s PSAPs were already working efficiently and so the effort she puts into the consolidation process will keep the county in front of that process.

“We’re ahead of the game,” she said. “It’s not that we’re jumping the gun, we’re just ahead of the game and we’re not going to have to rush around at the last minute to make sure everything comes together. Come January we should be able to slide right into the consolidation. Everything should work perfectly. There may be some hiccups, but we’ll work through them.”

But, she added, “My biggest thing is if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

In the end, Best said, her department exists “to serve the community,” adding, “We’re here to save lives, we’re here to take care of our deputies and our officers and we’re here to be public servants.”

Best is quite familiar with the concept of what it means to be a public servant. The Mansfield High School graduate began her career as a dispatcher in 2008 with the Fort Smith Police Department. She then joined the department’s Narcotics Division as a secretary before returning to dispatch in 2015. In 2019 she worked in conjunction with the department’s Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), making sure the department’s approximately 550 standards and policies were being followed. After a year in that position, she moved over to the department’s school resource program.

“They made their own police department in 2019 and in June of 2020 I moved over to help establish that department,” she said.

Six years ago, Best stepped into a public servant-oriented family when she married Fort Smith courts bailiff Eric Best, whose father, the late Dale Best, was a longtime trooper with the Arkansas State Police in Crawford County and whose mother, Marian East, is retired from the state crime lab in Little Rock. And her brother-in-law is currently serving as the city of Rogers’ interim police chief.

Best, who for now is working out of the county’s Office of Emergency Management Services building in Van Buren, loves being a dispatcher even though she feels it is “the most under-appreciated” in any department.

“Most of the time people just see you as the person who answers the phone,” she said. “They don’t realize you’re the person who just answered the phone to send you help.”

Still, she knows it is important for a dispatcher to have a mentality that helps them rise above the idea that they are just the person answering the phone in the height of an emergency.

“I didn’t realize it when I was younger, it was never something you said, like, ‘I can’t wait to be a dispatcher,’ but once you get into it you realize being a dispatcher is not for everybody,” she said. “You have to have a certain mindset, a certain attitude, a certain demeanor to handle some (of the calls) even I’ve heard throughout the years.”

Gilstrap agreed that it is important to match the right personality to the job.

“You can’t tie me up and throw me in a dispatcher’s chair,” he said. “There’s a lot of responsibility to that job and it takes a special person to be able to stay calm, cool and collected and to gather that information and get it to where it needs to go. It takes a special person to do that and I’m not that person.”

A good dispatcher must be fine with being “the first to know what’s going on and the last to hear the ending of anything,” said Best, and more concerned with being “the voice behind the phone, the calm in the chaos.”

That’s what Best brings to this new position. And that is the mindset she is eager to instill in the dispatchers who will be an integral part of the county’s new consolidation effort.