Some administrative board members of the Flathead 911 Emergency Communications Center responded at their June 8 meeting to recent criticisms of the center by Kalispell city officials.
Those criticisms, by Kalispell officials including Fire Chief Dan Diehl and City Manager Jane Howington at a May 9 work session, described recurrent issues with the dispatch system, concerns over the potential for increasing costs and disappointment over features left out of the CAD (computer aided dispatch) system contract. The Beacon reported on these concerns in its May 25 edition.
At the 911 board meeting, Mike Shepard, a Columbia Falls city councilman, made clear his deep frustration with criticism from Kalispell officials who he feels have not taken the time to understand the complexity of combining all of the Flathead’s emergency services into one system over the last year, nor does he think some of the expectations about what was contained in the CAD contract were realistic.
“The pie in the sky that they were looking at has become a cow patty in the hand,” Shepard said. “I am tired of the naysayers – I wish they’d shut the hell up.”
Shepard added that such criticisms can demean the hard work of the dispatchers and information technology workers who put in long hours at a stressful job.
Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset responded that criticisms aired by other Kalispell officials are part of an effort to improve 911 Center operations, and that Shepard’s remarks implied complaints shouldn’t be lodged about legitimate issues.
“It almost is telling people to be quiet about these concerns,” Nasset said.
“When I read the statements in the Beacon, I was very upset,” Shepard said. “Why continue to be negative? This is what I don’t understand.”
“Is it negative or is it constructive?” Nasset replied. “We’re being team players as much as we can, but we want to see improvement as much as we can also.”
The brief exchange came toward the end of a meeting where the board reviewed the 911 Center’s budget for the upcoming year, and discussed how they might provide help, despite tight funding, for the IT professionals who are on call at all hours. Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry and Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial also discussed the potential need to hire a consultant to assess areas of the valley where radio coverage is poor.
“It’s a good time to step back and say, ‘Let’s have somebody else from the outside take a good look,’” Dial said.
After the meeting, Shepard and Flathead County Commissioner Jim Dupont emphasized that integrating the Flathead Valley’s fire departments, police departments and sheriff’s office dispatch centers was a process that began long before the 911 Center was even built, and that emergency workers have made tremendous advances in communication over the last year, despite any mistakes along the way.
“Anybody who has done a conversion like this said it takes three to five years to get all the bumps out of the road,” Shepard said.
Dupont, a former sheriff who helped develop the facility, said the 911 Center was never intended to save costs, but to increase safety for residents.
“It was always my contention: ‘You’re not going to save money, you’re just going to be a lot more efficient,’” Dupont said. “Some of the users get frustrated with the cost – the county is picking up 70 percent of the cost, you don’t think we’re frustrated?”
They also reiterated that some of those criticizing the 911 Center’s operations have not visited the facility to see how it operates since it opened its doors nearly a year ago, as Dupont put it, “to make some of the statements that were made without really knowing what you’re talking about, in fact, without being up here.”
“What is wrong with these people that they say we’re doing nothing right?” Shepard said. “It’s time that they suck it up and maybe work with us a little bit instead of standing on the outside and throwing stones.”
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