Every day, hundreds of calls come in to the Pasco County Emergency Communications/9-1-1 Center from all over the county, including right here in Wesley Chapel. Residents expect a prompt and proper response to whatever crisis/emergency they may be facing. However, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco has told commissioners that the center has not been meeting expectations.
During the March 24 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), Nocco laid out his case for what he called a failing 9-1-1 communications center that he said has struggled since it was consolidated with the county’s communications center (which is responsible for dispatching fire rescue and emergency medical responses) in 2013. Nocco also said that the county hasn’t held up its end of the deal.
The center currently employs 72 dispatchers and the BOCC approved the hiring of eight more in February.
“All we want is a partnership,” Nocco said. “The reason we’re speaking up is because that partnership has failed.”
Nocco told commissioners that he thinks that the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) should have a say in the hiring process of dispatchers, and especially, in the hiring of a new communications center director, a position that has remained empty since September, after previous director Dona Fernandes left for “personal reasons.”
During a presentation that included Power Point slides and several speakers, Nocco cited the main reasons for the failing partnership — a lack of leadership, quality control, training, urgency and (of course) partnership.
“When you cut training, bad things happen,” Nocco said. “If we’re the lion’s share of the calls (75 percent), we should get a say in who gets hired.”
Nocco called for a PCSO lieutenant to serve as the assistant director at the communications center.
“We want to work with the BOCC to choose the new (communications) director,” Nocco said. “And, we need a lieutenant in there who can report to the director who can provide context and act as a liaison.”
Nocco said that his office recommended hiring more dispatchers ahead of the consolidation and that new hires weren’t cross-trained to know how to handle calls for both fire rescue and law enforcement. He also asserted that the county was not requiring applicants go through drug and polygraph tests or psychological screenings before being hired.
Several examples were given to back up his point, including emergency calls going unanswered, incomplete/inaccurate information being gathered from callers and given to first responders (such as the wrong address for an emergency), failure to dispatch in a timely manner, first responders being dispatched to incidents without appropriate backup and citizens being given dangerous/inaccurate instructions in emergency situations.
“I see calls come in without enough information,” said PCSO Capt. Brett Landsberg during Nocco’s presentation. “I hear deputies call for backup that doesn’t show up. It’s frustrating.”
Nocco described a situation in which a citizen called to report a man outside a residence with a knife. The dispatcher instructed the caller to go outside and check to see if the suspect was still there. Another incident involved a caller reporting a family member who had just committed suicide with a gun. The dispatcher instructed the caller to remove the gun from the residence. And, another example Nocco cited involved a mother calling to report that her 14-year-old son had just molested his six-year-old sister. The dispatcher instructed the mother to take her son to the hospital to be Baker Acted (taken to a mental health facility for observation), instead of being taken into custody for a sex crime.
“We don’t want to lose a firefighter, a deputy or a citizen, when we could have fixed these issues,” Nocco said.
Following the presentation, Pasco County administrator Michele Baker stood to address Nocco.
“You have my full commitment, as well as the commitment of my team, that we will continue to work with you in order to make the improvements that you have asked for, because you deserve them,” Baker said. “You’ve brought to my attention, and to my team’s attention, today, some issues that absolutely need to be addressed and we are committed to doing that with you.”
Baker stressed that changing the communications center’s culture takes time and that when the idea of consolidating the communications center first was explored, it was found that it took as many as four years before some counties were able to get it right.
“Bringing a lieutenant in is a brilliant idea,” Baker said, adding that a new emergency protocol system is about to launch that should streamline dispatching and ensure that the proper information is gathered for the proper emergency scenario.
As far as the examples provided by Nocco, Baker promised that she would be looking into them. “Our dispatchers were wrong,” she said.