Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Board votes to dissolve Troy Dispatch Center

Hagadone News Network | September 27, 2023 12:00 AM

Troy Area Dispatch is no more.

After discussion at a Sept. 22 meeting, Troy Area Dispatch Board members John Righter, Heather McDougall and Hank LaSalla voted unanimously to dissolve the Troy Area Dispatch District and permanently transfer dispatch services to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

Lincoln County Commissioners will have a formal vote on the matter at a future meeting, but the dispatch center, in operation since 1965, stopped operating on July 17, citing staffing issues.

The center has struggled to maintain necessary staffing for quite some time with the county Sheriff’s Office handling calls in the Troy area in the interim.

Troy Dispatch began as an all-volunteer organization before transitioning to a paid operation in 1996 when the Troy Area Dispatch District was formed. Initial costs were nearly $41,000 and it was paid for with a seven-mill levy. In 2000, the levy was raised to 20 mills and provided about $97,000 for services.

In July, Lincoln County District 2 Commissioner Jim Hammons said most of the board’s budget, a total of $325,000 including a reserve account, has been spent on overtime pay because there weren’t enough dispatchers. He also said there were necessary equipment upgrades and the district lacked the money to pay for it.

Sheriff Darren Short detailed some of the center’s staffing troubles in a Sept. 15 letter to the commissioners. He also called for “no further delay in the decision-making process” in terms of the future of Troy Dispatch.

“Last year, TAD began experiencing extreme staffing shortages, culminating in several periods wherein TAD had only one trained dispatcher available for duty,” Short wrote. “On the first occasion, we sent a certified LCSO dispatcher to Troy after having been notified by the on-duty TAD dispatcher that he had been on shift for 16 hours, that there appeared to be no other TAD dispatcher available for one week and that a board member had authorized him to contact LCSO for assistance.”

Short further explained that the situation turned roughly one week of a Troy dispatcher and a Sheriff’s Office dispatcher covering TAD duties on a 12-hour-on and 12-hour-off schedule. Short also said his office sent a county dispatcher to Troy several other times later in the year. The TAD board was also warned that the county could not indefinitely continue to send dispatchers to cover unfilled shifts.

In his recent letter to the county commissioners, Short also explained some of the costs that the county incurred due to Troy Dispatch services issues.

“Late in 2022, because of the earlier TAD staffing situation, LCSO developed a contingency plan for emergency operation of TAD radios in the event of another staffing crisis,” Short wrote. “LCSO purchased and installed approximately $22,000 in unbudgeted radio connectivity equipment to enable the remote operation of the TAD radios and the ability to remotely page fire and EMS agencies in the event TAD became unstaffed.”

Short continued in his letter explaining what had happened with Troy Dispatch.

“Throughout the approximately 11 months since the first TAD staffing crisis that we assisted with, TAD continued to experience hiring, retention and daily staffing shortfalls,” Short wrote. “TAD made up for those shortfalls by relying on their staff to work extensive overtime, at times reportedly more than 80 hours straight time and 40 hours overtime in a two-week period. This caused additional staffing problems, to include retention from staff burnout and eventually resulted in TAD’s current negative cash balance.”

Once Troy Dispatch ceased offering services, one of the Troy dispatchers was hired to work full-time in a temporary capacity while the new arrangements were dealt with.

Troy residents who attended the meeting spoke of communication while dispatching calls being poor when the transfer first began in July, but did acknowledge improvements in the last three months.

Fire Department members expressed concern about the cost of upgrading their radios. County Undersheriff Brent Faulkner said equipment upgrades were not mandatory.

“Nothing that is happening with dispatch is requiring a change in radios,” Faulkner said. “We do encourage upgrades, but it’s not mandatory. It’s the price of doing business and there are grants that can be sought for new equipment.”

Others asked if there would be a tax increase due to the transfer of services.

“Whatever you pay now goes away, but the cost of providing services will be spread around to the rest of the county residents and it will be less,” Faulkner said.

Faulkner said the county Sheriff’s Office wants to add one full-time dispatcher to its current staff of six full-time employees.

“Two of our dispatchers are from Troy, but they can’t be here 24 hours a day, so there’ll be continued learning by the dispatchers,” Faulkner said. “But the experiences we’ve had have been good learning.”

Troy resident Linda Rodriquez said she and a friend offered to volunteer to help staff the center, but Faulkner explained the commitment that is required to be a dispatcher.

“Prospective dispatchers have to go to state training at the law enforcement academy in Helena within a year of being hired, then work for 12 weeks with a trained dispatcher,” Faulkner said. “It’s not a part-time thing.”

Troy resident Larry Coryell was one resident pleased with the decision to dissolve the local dispatch.

“In the 30 years I’ve been here, volunteers did a great job, but after we had to pay for a big screen TV, exercise equipment and mirrored glass so someone wouldn’t see something they shouldn’t be seeing, my support for 911 here has disappeared, so I appreciate what the county is doing,” Coryell said.

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