WTOC Investigates: Savannah 911 Center not up to standard

WTOC Investigates: 911 Center not up to standard
Updated: Feb. 22, 2018 at 8:56 PM EST
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CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - Three weeks ago, Savannah and Chatham County split police departments. There's still one piece of the puzzle that isn't complete: the hand-off of the 911 Center. In a few short months, Savannah Police Department will pass off the duties to Chatham County.

"De-merger of the police was easy," Chatham County Manager Lee Smith said. "But this is a whole new level. We have to be painfully honest with ourselves about what's good and what's bad."

The phones will keep ringing. Calls will be answered, but it's an agency not running like it should according to the May 2017 Berkshire Study. It touched on efficiency issues at the 911 Center, stating "it's cramped, poorly designed, and may pose a health risk."

The city and county admit there are other improvements needed like newer technology and more staffing. A 2010 Winbourne Study revealed these similar  issues. Savannah Police Department has always been in charge of operating the center even though it serves the entire county. Interim Chief Mark Revenew explains why these issues have not been addressed.

"Well, the police department has been in transition with the whole demerger process and all that stuff, and the other thing is we need to come up with an equitable way of dividing the cost among all municipalities," he said.

Revenew says the city and county front most of the extra costs for the dispatch center. The price tag per year is close to $7 million. The county says cellphone fees only provide around $5 million of that amount. Due to waiting on the de-merger and the budget deficit, Savannah PD says big changes were not made. While Smith says, not improving the center could have impacted public safety.

"You can say that's not efficient. Let's move past not efficient. That's not safe for people who are in harm's way, have been in an accident, or are having a heart attack. That's not the way we should be conducting that business," he said.

Recently, the county hired the Winbourne Agency to evaluate the dispatch center again. They've also put a transition team in place to get ready for the July 1 deadline. One big change will involve the person who manages the day-to-day operations.

"The plan right now is to have a civilian director that would be a county employee, and all employees will be county employees," Smith said.

This decision comes after municipality leaders in the county have made this suggestion for years. The change in leadership is a change both the city and the county can agree on.

"We want to follow the recommendations of the industry experts which says it is an independent agency run by a professional executive director," Revenew said.

"Talking to managers across the county, they preferred it to be run by the county as a department civilian operated because it's not all police - it's EMS, it's fire," Smith said.

Another change already taken this year, the dispatch center implemented map upgrades to reflect the new Chatham County Police jurisdiction.

"At the 911 Center, we service all of the police, fire and EMS and the citizens of this community no matter what when we are dealing with new agencies," Judith Miller, Operations Coordinator of the 911 center, said. "It's still us the same people answering the phones and dispatching."

However, some jurisdictions are divided by the yellow line in the middle of the street. For example, portions of Fort Argyle Road are split with the west bound lane belonging to Chatham County Police Department and the east bound lane belonging to Savannah Police Department. In emergency situations, the dispatch center says they would send both departments.

"Better safe than sorry, when in doubt send everybody," Smith said. "If it's one side is Savannah and the other is the county, Pooler, Bloomingdale or Port Wentworth, I've seen the calls where they've said send both."

"These are fluid boundaries," Chief Revenew said. "I've heard that brought up that the officers don't know, but they do. Sometimes there are some details that have to be worked out, but it never affects the service provided to the citizen."

As the 911 calls keep coming in, the county has no time to waste in preparing for this takeover, and SPD says it will help any way it can.

"The goal is to make sure the citizens experience quick and uninterrupted service and we're going to work with the county to make sure that happens," Chief Revenew said.

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