Originally created 12/22/99

911 call center to be consolidated



After almost a year of bickering, Augusta commissioners decided Tuesday to consolidate the 911 center and grant pay incentives to firefighters with paramedic training.

The Richmond County 911 center currently houses dispatchers for the sheriff's, fire and marshal's departments, but the employees remain separate within the center. Dispatchers report to their respective department supervisors.

A $60,000 efficiency study released in February by DMG Maximus recommended that all dispatchers be merged into a central communications center under a civilian manager. After prolonged debate, the commissioners voted -- but not unanimously -- to consolidate the center. Commissioners Henry Brigham and Willie Mays abstained, and Richard Colclough and Lee Beard dissented.

The 41 dispatchers from the sheriff's department and the nine from the fire department must undergo cross-training for the new center. The management study suggested only 45 employees are needed, so some positions are expected to be eliminated. However, Sheriff Charles Webster said those employees will be transferred within the departments.

Although the study suggested a $155,000 annual savings from consolidation, Chief Ronnie Few disputed that statistic, saying no money would be saved.

The fire dispatcher salaries have been paid from the fire department's annual budget, while the sheriff's employees have been paid with 911 fees. The proposed 2000 budget eliminates that expenditure from the fire department budget. But Chief Few told the commissioners he'd rather continue paying the dispatcher's salaries in order to keep the 911 center like it is.

Capt. Phil Wasson, who is responsible for the 911 personnel in the sheriff's department, was appointed head of the new 911 center -- a decision that pleased Sheriff Webster.

"Ninety-seven to 98 percent of the calls to 911 belong to us," Sheriff Webster said. "I just wanted the person in charge to be a professional law man. That was my main concern."

Capt. Wasson's salary became a bone of contention when Mr. Mays wanted to know how much of a pay increase he would be receiving. He said a previous proposal suggested Capt. Wasson's annual pay go from about $48,000 to more than $70,000. He then loudly cautioned the commissioners not to treat the DMG Maximus report as the "Bible of all studies."

In the consolidation plan, Capt. Wasson will answer to a 911 steering committee, composed of several people, including the sheriff, the fire chief, the director of emergency management and a representative from the ambulance service.

In the end, Chief Few conceded: "It's not going to be an easy chore. But it's a moot point. The commissioners voted. As far as I'm concerned, it's over."

In another commission vote, however, Chief Few came out the victor. Commissioners voted unanimously to approve incentive pay for firefighters. Those with emergency medical technician certification will receive $1,200 yearly, and those with paramedic certification are granted a yearly increase of $1,800.

Firefighters who receive the incentive pay must keep their certification valid, help train other firefighters and maintain the medical supplies and equipment.

Reach Jessica Rinck at (706) 823-3225.