By Benita Heath
SOUTH POINT — It’s the unthinkable call. Your car goes spinning out of control. You desperately need help. You grab your cell to call 911, comforted that help will come.
For those in this part of the state that help has often come garbed in the gray uniform and dress hat of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, whose Ironton Post headquarters and dispatching center have always been at South Point, right in plain view from U.S. 52.
But recently, there have been changes in the way the patrol functions, all done, the Columbus headquarters says, with the goal of producing efficiency and cost-savings. Those changes have meant the local dispatchers who used to drive out to Delta Lane to go to work, now must head up State Route 93 to Jackson, at least an hour away.
Now Jackson will handle dispatching for the posts in Ironton, Athens, Gallipolis, Chillicothe, Jackson and Portsmouth.
It’s a move that has gotten John Q., not to mention Jane, Public concerned, distressed, agitated, about what Columbus is doing to the southern part of the state.
When The Tribune reported on the change in January, a number of citizens expressed their concerns.
One was Vickie Gillam of Hanging Rock, who asked at the time: “How can dispatchers who do not live in or are not familiar with a certain area send emergency help there quickly, safely and efficiently?”
In a more recent interview with The Tribune Gillam elaborated on her concerns, which have not abated in the past month.
“The main thing is their being able to find people out in the county,” Gillam said. “When AEP first switched dispatching to Columbus, I reported an outage. I was told ‘You will have to give me better directions than that.’ I basically had to give her directions from Columbus.”
Gillam’s unease focuses on the reality that the name of a county or state route on a map isn’t always what it’s called colloquially. If the dispatchers aren’t speaking the vernacular of Lawrence County, how can they get the patrols out to the right locations? That’s Gillam’s question.
“County Road 1, County Road 2. What are the other names. … Greasy Ridge … Porter Gap,” she said. “I feel like you’ll get someone trying to explain how to find something when they don’t know themselves. When (someone) calls the state patrol, they are going to be upset and not thinking clearly.”
Another reader was worried that with the dispatching unit moved from the post and troopers out on the roads, the South Point building would be empty. Could that mean a stranded motorist would be left pounding on the door of a vacant building?
The man who oversees the village where the Ironton dispatching post used to be is Bill Gaskin, longtime mayor of South Point. His response to the consolidation is short and to the point.
“I don’t think it is a good idea, but it’s their money,” Gaskin said.
Gaskin questions if more troopers are being added, shouldn’t dispatching stay local?
“They keep adding, that is why they need dispatching here,” the mayor said. “These guys are having to drive up to Jackson, makes those boys have more hardship to get to work.”
There are nine Highway Patrol Districts, plus a district for the turnpike; all have or will undergo dispatching consolidation.
The primary motivation for the consolidation was efficiency, says Sgt. Darrin Blosser, spokesperson for the patrol.
“It is a realignment of dispatching resources to maximize the use of patrol personnel, equipment and communications operations in general at the dispatch center,” he said.
As far as any figures on how much savings so far, there aren’t any available since the changes are too recent to offer data, Blosser said. Because of the newness of the venture there are several points that Blosser said he wants the public to understand.
First, there will be no reduction in service.
“The consolidation causes no interruption of service provided,” he said. “There are no people being laid off, no jobs being cut. It would have nothing to do with patrol personnel.”
In fact, for the most part, the voice on the phone today will probably be the same as this time last year. That’s because the dispatchers who worked at South Point will be handling the calls for the same part of Lawrence County just as before. That means dispatchers would know the offbeat and familiar names of the areas they’re sending the troopers to.
“You will still be talking to the dispatcher (you are used to dealing with), most of the time, yes, the dispatcher that used to dispatch for Ironton,” Blosser said. “That will not be a problem. Maybe that dispatcher has called off sick and for the moment it may be someone from Gallipolis.”
STILL A PRESENCE
But the goal is that the same people who have always handled Lawrence County calls will still handle those calls.
Should a motorist in distress go to the post directly he or she would have two options for help, Blosser said. Even with the move to Jackson, from time to time, there will still be personnel at the Delta Lane building.
However, should the place be empty, there is a way to contact the Jackson dispatchers at the South Point site.
“There is a big red call box as soon as you enter the foyer and it instructs you to pick up the phone. It rings to the Jackson dispatcher,” Blosser said. “Also there are video cameras that monitor the perimeter of the building.”
Those cameras are also monitored by the Jackson call center where dispatchers can see firsthand who is there and what is happening.
It was 2002 when the Florida Highway Patrol began consolidating its dispatch centers. That was along with a new radio system shared by all law enforcement officers in the state, according to Steve Williams of the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles department.
When that happened that highway patrol was reduced from 47 dispatch centers to seven.
“We found that we could provide better service from a consolidated approach and also at lower costs,” Williams said. “When we had our 47 centers just for FHP, there were times when only one dispatcher was working. When the dispatcher had to take a break, they would sign off the station at which time none of the officers had any dispatch service, creating an officer safety issue.”
Reducing costs while maintaining the same level of service is the goal of the statewide dispatching consolidation, Blosser said.
“We need to reiterate that they are getting a dispatcher just the same as before.”