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City, county revisit issue of combining 911 service

Ironton and Lawrence County leaders agreed Thursday night to pursue merging the county’s three emergency services dispatch systems in an effort to save both the county and the city money.

The commission met at the Ironton City Center in council chambers and council member Leo Johnson took the opportunity to ask the commission to step up efforts to put words into action on the issue of combining dispatching for the city police, sheriff’s office and 911 center, which right now handles fire and ambulance calls. Merging the three dispatch centers has been talked about off and on over the last several years.

About two years ago, both Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens and Sheriff Tim Sexton presented the commission with plans to merge the county’s two systems. At that time, a committee consisting of Ironton Police Chief Jim Carey, 911 Director Lonnie Best and Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Lawless. But since then, no action has been taken.

Johnson said both the city and the county might save money by working together.

“Keep it on the front burner, that’s all I’m asking,” Johnson said.

He and Mayor Rich Blankenship pointed out that the city will soon start working on a new budget for the coming year and $250,000 spent on its four fulltime and one part-time dispatching center could be used elsewhere.

Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens said right now the county spends $475,000 on its 911 center. Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Lawless said the sheriff’s office has five dispatchers, at an approximate cost of $200,000 a year.

Stephens pointed out that dispatchers actually perform more than just dispatching duties. Women dispatchers in particular are also clerks and jail matrons. Best pointed out that his dispatchers also have addressing duties.

“Too bad when this thing was set up, it was not done right,” Best said.

Like some of the others, Best said he did not think anyone would lose his job under the merger.

Carey said dispatching for law enforcement is a “totally different world” than handling calls for fire and ambulance. Dispatchers must have access to and training on the Law Enforcement Automatic Data System (LEADS) which must be manned 24 hours a day. Right now, 911 dispatchers do not have access to LEADS while the other two entities do. LEADS is required by law for law enforcement dispatchers.

Carey also pointed out that if, for instance, he simply handed all his police calls to 911, Best would immediately need a lot more dispatchers.

“We have had 700 calls this month alone,” Carey said. He estimated before the year ends, his dispatchers will handle anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 calls from the public needing help.

Commissioner Tanner Heaberlin’s eye was on finances. Much of the discussion about merging services occurred before he was appointed to the commission last summer.

“How much is this going to cost?” he asked. “Will you need extra equipment?”

Johnson wants a gradual shift from the existing set-up to a completely unified center within, perhaps, three years. He said while the idea may not be popular, the benefits of cost savings and cutting redundancy have long-term value.

“I think Ironton is more than willing to help,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be painful, but leadership is painful.”