Originally created 09/07/98

Home front: Dispatch system troubled



WAGENER -- A faint crackle on the police scanner turned Mark Redd's attention away from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal blaring on his TV.

Something vague about a car accident, a possible fire and an entrapment.

The lingering tone he listened for that signals an emergency didn't sound. Nor did the Wagener fire chief hear his trucks called out to help.

Several minutes passed before he recognized the first real alert of a dangerous fire that threatened to kill a trapped police officer inside his burning cruiser. Instead of the traditional signals, Chief Redd heard a voice filled with nervous adrenalin calling for help that forced him out of his Lazy-Boy and into his Chevy Blazer. It was the voice of friend and assistant fire chief Dennis Rogers, who rarely waivers in trying situations.

Assistant Chief Rogers was just passing by when he saw the burning car.

And that's how fire officials knew they were needed. If not for that happenstance, Aiken County sheriff's Deputy Greg Gaskins would be dead.

"Thirty seconds to a minute longer and that joker would have lost his life," Chief Redd said. "And all because of a screw-up in dispatch."

The latest incident, say some, is just one of many over the last 10 years, which raises the question that Chief Redd has silently asked: "How many people have nearly died because of problems with the county dispatch department?"

The drama unraveled shortly before 6 p.m. Aug. 19 when the deputy's patrol car struck a tractor trailer, rolled into a ditch and caught fire. What followed was a chain of events that saved him:

A 911 call by Gladys Adams from her liquor store on Railroad Avenue. Help from two truck drivers, one of whom was involved in the accident, and a firefighter who has yet to claim credit for saving the 24-year-old deputy's life.

But would he be alive if Assistant Chief Rogers hadn't driven by and pulled Deputy. Gaskins from his patrol car?

Probably not, said Chief Redd.

Then he ticks off a memorized list of reasons to back his claim. From the time he heard crackle on the police scanner about a possible car accident at the corner of Busbee Road and South Carolina Highway 39, it was approximately six minutes before the fire department was dispatched to the scene, Chief Redd said. And that was after he radioed the dispatcher and told her to signal the fire department.

The sheriff argues adamantly that the fire department was notified within two minutes of the 911 call, and claims the dispatcher's tape will prove his case. But no one is willing to stir the pot with Chief Redd, Sheriff Howard Sellers said. They are convinced that Deputy Gaskins' incident was handled efficiently and that proper procedures were followed.

"We've got some darn good dispatchers out there, but others are being tossed out to the wolves," Chief Redd said.

During the day, there are at least three employees in the dispatch center -- one for law enforcement, one for emergency medical services and fires and a receptionist/switchboard operator. But when someone doesn't show for work, there are only two bodies responsible for all the calls.

That's the crux of the problem, Aiken County firefighters say. The sheriff's dispatcher is required to aid his counterpart, who is responsible for directing 20 fire departments, at least seven ambulances and several rescue squads, with fire and EMS calls. But he doesn't always lend a hand, they say.

Chief Redd is scheduled to air his concerns with the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee of the Aiken County Council on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Sheriff Sellers is planning to attend to voice his side.

At one time or another, most volunteer firefighters in Aiken County have felt Chief Redd's frustrations.

"The biggest problem fire departments face is communications with dispatchers. And that's the most important link we have," said Michael Jackson, chief of the New Holland Fire Department.

Much of the problem stems from primitive equipment and a shortage of workers, firemen say.

But until the 911 center is no longer funded by the sheriff's office, they say there is little hope that things will change.

"The root of the problem, I think, doesn't lie with dispatchers," says Mark Key, chief of the New Ellenton Fire Department. "It starts at the top. Money isn't being spent in the right places. It's obvious that the sheriff is going to look out for his own needs. The dispatchers are just an afterthought."

Still, they can't help but wonder if there is a bias against volunteer fire departments.

"We're on the bottom of the food chain," Chief Jackson said. "Some dispatchers do a decent job giving us the information we need. They send us where we need to go and stay tuned to us when we arrive on the scene. But there are others who could care less whether we're alive. We're treated like the redheaded stepchildren."

The sheriff's office doesn't dispute claims of understaffing and antiquated equipment, some of which is so outdated replacement parts are scarce.

County officials hope that when the newly constructed dispatch center is up and running, much of the confusion and many of the problems will become minimal. Additional staffing has also been proposed. But the hurdle will be deciding what kind and how much equipment to purchase.

"The equipment should have been replaced 10 years ago," Sheriff Sellers said. "But it was either a problem of the county being broke or just not being willing to replace it. Like the fire chiefs, I've felt that frustration, too."

"We could have the Taj Mahal of dispatch equipment, or we could have the basics," said District 3 County Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie. "It's just a matter of what we can afford."

That's the bottom line, the sheriff said. "It will come down to getting the equipment we need to solve our problems at the cheapest possible price."

Sheriff Sellers is scheduled to present a proposal to the Aiken County Communications Board for approval later this month, but the ultimate decision lies with county council.