County officials acknowledge crowded and noisy temporary 911 facility has issues, no timeline or cost estimate to address the situation
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In response to an anonymous complaint about the operation of the county’s 911 department, currently being run out of a back-up facility, officials acknowledge there have been some problems. Those issues are being addressed, although there is not yet a formal plan, officials say.
Related: New Hanover report shows lack of communication, resources, and training during Florence, suggests improvements
Last week, an anonymous email was sent to County Attorney Wanda Copley and others, outlining a series of complaints, including concerns over overcrowding and security issues at the county’s back-up 911 facility, as well as concerns over the lack of any timeline on restoring the county’s primary call center. The author of the email appeared to have detailed knowledge of the operation of the back-up center, but did not identify as a county employee.
In an email to the Board of Commissioners, County Manager Chris Coudriet noted that “I cannot refute the content [of the email] as much of the concern expressed is valid.” However, Coudriet also stated that some of the information in the email was “askew from the facts.”
Coudriet addressed the email’s concerns with Port City Daily and provided additional information and clarification about the issue.
The county completed the back-up 911 center, located at the county’s fire department on Carolina Beach Road just north of Snow’s Cut Bridge. The back-up center is required by state law, according to Coudriet, and has been used since its completion over a year ago to train new employees.
The back-up center is smaller than the primary facility, which is located in the New Hanover County Government Center. The back-up center is about 30 feet by 30 feet, and has fewer operator consoles than the original – 16 as opposed to 21. (The county notes that the full complement of consoles are sometimes, but not always, staffed.)
During Hurricane Florence, a mechanical malfunction caused the emergency generator at the primary facility to fail. Operations were moved to a remote office in Raleigh, where employees had already set up as part of the county’s contingency plan for the storm. Following the Hurricane, employees returned to the primary center, but the county was aware it would eventually have to move operations to fully inspect the damage.
In late February, the county moved 911 employees to the back-up center, where they’ve operated for the last five weeks.
The email suggests that the close proximity of employees has caused difficulty “hearing both their units over the radio as well as their callers during emergencies,” and that there are “errors being made due to the closeness.”
Coudriet acknowledged issues with the noise in the center caused by its smaller footprint compared to the primary facility, but denied noise issues were causing errors in handling 911 calls.
“There is no evidence to support this,” Courdriet said of alleged errors. “But because of the close proximity of consoles, it is possible that a telecommunicator has to ask someone to repeat information more often than in the primary 911 center. Our management staff heard this as a concern during recent staff meetings, and they are in the process of working to create more of a noise buffer in the back-up center. But there is no evidence to support that there have been any errors.”
The email alleges that several potential solutions have been presented, but shot down.
“When the telecommunicators have offered potential solutions such as soundproofing at the very minimum they are told it is not within the budget,” the email reads.
Coudriet acknowledged that no solution has been found, and that “we do not believe that we’ll find a solution that completely eliminates the problem.”
However, while there is no complete fix on the table, Coudriet denied that anything was “turned down because of money.”
Another concern was the alleged lack of security at the back-up facility, specifically numerous windows.
“This is factually inaccurate,” Coudriet said. “For anyone to enter into the backup center and its main facility, you must have badge access which mirrors the model at the primary site. I acknowledge there are windows at the backup center. I have no reason to believe the windows cause a security problem.”
The email alleges that these issues are having a negative impact on moral, compounded by the county’s unwillingness to allow time off from the stressful workplace.
“The stress level among the telecommunicators is so high, due to constant fear and worry of mishearing or missing entirely an essential detail and not being able to provide the correct response for their units and citizens. They are being reprimanded when they are using the time off that they’ve earned because there has been such an influx in usage since moving to the backup center,” the email states.
The county denied any use of reprimands against staff, although according to spokesperson Jessica Loeper, not every time-off request can be granted.
“There has been no reprimand for taking time off. In the 911 center, as with any other critical job function, the department must ensure that there is adequate coverage at all times. So, there may be times where staff asks off and it can’t be accommodated due to other staff previously requesting time off. The team must ensure coverage for the consoles, so staff also have the opportunity to swap shifts with colleagues. But there has not been any reprimand for taking or asking for time off,” Loeper wrote in an email.
The email twice points out that there is no timeline for returning employees to the primary facility, suggesting that the process could take over two years – leaving the county with a smaller facility for another hurricane season, possibly more.
Coudriet acknowledged the lack of timeline, but said the county is working on the issue, including a meeting held on Monday (which was, the county noted, already scheduled and not related to the email).
“It is accurate to say that we do not have a known time when our 911 center can return to the primary site,” Coudriet said. “We only received the engineering report within the past week that articulates the basic fixes needed to reestablish operations in the primary center. The team [met] Monday, April 22 to hammer out the course of action to correct the problems, identify the scale of the fixes, and the timelines expected. As an example to scale, we can choose to make the minimum fixes that take us to pre-Florence conditions, or we could select a more complete overhaul and correct deficiencies that predate Florence. Speed to work will be the primary driver as we finalize the plan.”
Coudriet noted it was his preference to return employees to the primary facility sooner and “make modifications along the way.”
There is currently no ballpark cost or time estimate for the work, although the county hopes to develop a better picture of the repair project soon.
Loeper added in an email on Monday, “After today, staff will have a better idea of what needs to be done in order to get the primary site back up and running. But we know, at a minimum, that will include repairing or replacing the generator, transfer switch, UPS (uninterrupted power system), and electrical components.”
In general, Coudriet stated the current situation was imperfect but being addressed.
“The safety and security of our people and our community are always the principles we lead by, and we’ll never make decisions that compromise on those facts. In the case of a backup center, I believe we’ve met the goal of safety and security, but it’s far from ideal but it was never designed to be ideal or permanent. It is a backup facility with some inconvenience and unintended consequences. We are and will continue to address those,” Coudriet said.
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