August 17, 2014

3 Lexington County communities face decision on 911 centers

It soon may be 10-7 – code for out of service – for locally run 911 centers for police and fire protection in three Lexington County communities.

It soon may be 10-7 – code for out of service – for locally run 911 centers for police and fire protection in three Lexington County communities.

Batesburg-Leesville, Cayce and West Columbia face a choice of merging their emergency response services into the much larger county operation or paying much more to remain independent.

It’s a dilemma for community leaders who feel their centers assure better response to calls for help.

The decision looms after County Council agreed to end long-time assistance to those communities – home to 40,000 of the county’s 270,000 residents – July 1, 2015.

Officials in each community aren’t sure what they’ll do.

“We intend to meet with county officials soon to understand what led to this change and what impact it will have,” Batesburg-Leesville town manager Joan Taylor said.

No other county in South Carolina has so many 911 centers, a set-up approved in 1993.

That arrangement now is outdated duplication, county officials say. Continuing to oversee four separate operations is complicated and expensive.

“The county can no longer absorb the administrative and financial oversight of them (the three communities) choosing to operate 911 facilities,” County Administrator Joe Mergo said. “Our focus needs to be 100 percent on what we’re responsible for.”

State-of-the-art technology at the county center, which opened last fall, enables help to be en route before callers finish explaining the situation.

By the county’s tally, it handled more than 94 percent of the 353,169 telephone calls last year for help in unincorporated areas and 11 municipalities that are its partners.

That compares with 3.5 percent in West Columbia, 2 percent in Cayce and a half-percent in Batesburg-Leesville in that period.

The change won’t affect calls for ambulance and emergency medical care in the three communities.Those calls already are handled by county officials.

But it will affect other emergency calls.

Cayce and West Columbia each handle local calls for police and fire, while Batesburg-Leesville does so solely for police.

County handling of 911 calls for fire protection in Batesburg-Leesville occasionally has “some bumps in the road” but works well, town Fire Chief Jay Hendrix said.

West Columbia is exploring a switch to reliance on the county for fire calls.

In part, the deal will assure more firefighters arrive quicker for blazes in neighborhoods and businesses along its share of the I-26 corridor, said Marquis Solomon, chief of operations for city firefighters.

“It’s more efficient and will put more personnel on the scene faster,” he said.

But it’s a toss-up whether West Columbia will do likewise for police calls.

Mayor Joe Owens is inclined to keep the local center for police calls but says an assessment is needed on which set-up means faster response.

Cayce city manager Rebecca Vance said it’s premature to discuss the situation.

Taking over service completely in the three communities would require the addition of eight dispatchers at the county 911 center on top of the 40 there now, officials said.

Keeping locally run 911 centers promises to be expensive.

The tab “is going to be a real eye-opener” for communities, County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo predicted.

It costs the county $90,000 a year each to oversee the three locally run 911 centers, “woefully short” of what fees on telephone service generate to pay for that help, Mergo said.

By the county’s count, West Columbia chips in $27,000, Cayce $7,000 and Batesburg-Leesville $3,600.

And the county doesn’t charge for its work on things like map updates, reports to state agencies, training, new equipment and an array of other management roles.

Each community pays for its staff at local centers, with dispatchers usually performing clerical tasks as well.

The county 911 team is devoted solely to dealing with calls for emergency help and directing response to nearly 314,000 received last year.

Retaining separate centers likely will require each community to add staff and equipment, but none are sure yet of the price tag to do that.

The change in 911 management comes as Irmo starts to explore setting up its own center.

That effort comes after frustration at what some town leaders feel has been slow response stemming from lack of recognition of local landmarks that callers use to identify location of an incident.

Problems there are magnified because the town of 11,000 residents straddles the Lexington-Richland county border, sometimes creating confusion over who should contacted for respond.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Police Chief Brian Buck said. “It’ll cost significantly to set up.”

Besides adding staff and equipment, town police headquarters would have to be renovated to add space for the service.

Lexington County regularly sends units to calls for help in that area full of irregular borders as a precaution against overlooking someone in need of assistance, county public safety director David Kerr said.

Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld agrees one 911 center countywide is best.

But headaches persist, particularly when calls come from cellphones that don’t register a location as land lines do, he said.

Nearly 89 percent of calls that Lexington County handles come from cellphones, forcing dispatchers to ask callers for a location, records show.

“It’s a problem we cannot get our hands around yet,” Sonefeld said. “We have some ways to go.”

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