But the proposed budget for the dispatch service is already predicting a deficit and the lost money could mean the loss of personnel or tools, said the administrator, Steve Swafford.
Swafford said the proposed 911 dispatch budget is about $35,000 in the hole and it had included a $602.44 monthly payment from EMS. The loss of that money could mean a layoff, Swafford said.
Tracy Lambert, the EMS director, said he approached Swafford and the commissioners about doing away with the fee because he feels it’s a double tax. County residents already pay a tax to support Cleburne 911 service and another to support EMS, he said.
“My only intention on this issue is to have a resolution that is beneficial to the citizens of Cleburne County,” Lambert said.
He also pointed out that not all the services who receive dispatch calls from Cleburne 911 pay service fees.
Swafford said the county’s 12 volunteer fire departments pay no service fees. But he added that the fire departments are not comparable to EMS.
“Essentially, they’re a nonprofit, community service,” Swafford said. While EMS pays its employees, the firefighters are volunteers, he said.
The dispatch fees were instituted by the Cleburne County Commission in September 2008, Swafford said. He pointed out that Lambert was a county commissioner at the time and did vote for the fees. Lambert said he did vote to implement the fees, but even then had doubts about the fairness of the proposal.
Sharing the burden
Since Jan. 1, 2009, EMS and the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Heflin and Ranburne police departments all have paid service charges. In 2009, EMS paid $590.62 a month, a total of $7,087.50 annually. In January 2010, the fee went up to its current level.
“The only thing we attempted to cover with the fee is the training for EMDC, that’s Emergency Medical Dispatch Certification,” Swafford said.
That training allows the dispatchers to use the medical protocol through which they can assist callers as they wait for the ambulance to arrive, said Crystal Cavender, who has been a dispatcher with Cleburne County for nearly four years. The training teaches the dispatchers what questions to ask and how to focus panicked callers. It also outlines what to say to help the callers help the victims, Cavender said.
“I have done CPR on babies, all on the phone,” Cavender said.
The initial training is an intensive three-day course, she said. Annual recertification requires an additional 24 hours of training, she said.
Each branch of emergency services – police, fire and medical - has its own protocol, Swafford said, and the dispatchers have to be trained to use them all. The training for 12 employees can be expensive, Swafford said.
But EMS has had its own problems in the past year, Lambert said. Lambert began reorganizing EMS in January to bring down costs in an effort to convince the Cleburne County Hospital Board not to outsource the service. The Hospital Board manages EMS and the Cleburne County Nursing Home.
At the time, board members said the service was eating up nearly all the 4 mill tax collected to support both entities.
“We all are having to tighten up our belts and make sacrifices to maintain jobs and services,” Lambert said by email.
EMS employees have lost vacation time and other benefits to help rein in the budget, he said.
An attempt to curb costs
The central dispatch, which was created in 1996, is supposed to be a cost saver for the emergency services that use it and it makes the services more efficient for residents, Swafford said. Before Cleburne 911 was formed, emergency calls were routed through the jail, where one jailer took care of the calls and ran the jail, he said.
When Cleburne 911 took over central dispatching it was created as a co-op in which all the services could share the cost and benefit from the increased efficiency, Swafford said.
“Think of it as five farmers sharing a tractor instead of having to buy five separate tractors,” Swafford wrote in an email to the commissioners.
If EMS were to try to break out on its own for dispatch services it could cost as much at $100,000 per year, he added.
If the county had to lay off a dispatcher, it could affect local residents, Swafford said.
With its 12 employees, the dispatch service is able to maintain two dispatchers on every shift, he said. That double staffing is something that the Insurance Service Office uses to determine ratings for local fire departments, Swafford said. The ISO ratings are used to help determine property insurance rates – the better the rating the lower the insurance rates.
Hospital Board Chairman William Cleino said the board will abide by whatever the commissioners decide.
“We’re owned by the county,” Cleino said. “If they want to do it that way, they’re the elected officials.”
Commissioner Bobby Brooks said right now, he is leaning toward letting EMS forgo paying the $7,200, with a caveat.
“Only if we could make it up some other way,” Brooks said.
Brooks also believes it might be time to look into creating a larger partnership with other counties to provide dispatch service, he said.
“It would be a good idea, might benefit us,” Brooks added.
Commissioners Benji Langley and Laura Cobb said they were still researching the issue. Commissioner Emmett Owen couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Commission is scheduled to discuss the issue at its meeting on Tuesday at 3 p.m.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.