By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
County officials held a forum Thursday night to sell their plan to consolidate all emergency dispatching at the jail once a new service, enhanced-911, is available.
"I thought the turnout was good," Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said today. "I think it accomplished two things: It showed the county's point of view and it showed the city's point of view."
Havre city police and fire officials are asking the City Council to approve a separate e-911 dispatch center at the police station, a plan county officials oppose.
About 60 people attended, touring the detention and dispatch facility and participating in an open discussion afterward.
E-911, like caller ID, identifies the location of a call and speeds emergency response. For the past two years, a plan was in place to locate e-911 and all dispatching at the city police station. That decision was reversed in November with a vote of the 911 committee after two city members of the joint city-county committee refused to vote and abruptly left the meeting.
The Havre City Council will decide within the next month whether to go forward with dispatching in the city, separately from the county, as recommended in a letter to the council written by Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel and signed by Fire Chief Dave Sheppard and city public works director Dave Peterson.
The Hill County Commission invited Havre City Council members to Thursday's forum. Of the eight members, only Emily Mayer Lossing, Allen "Woody" Woodwick and Pam Hillery attended.
"I was glad to see the good turnout," Woodwick said. "I got some more information from Mike Barthel afterwards" and plan to look at the city building as well.
Woodwick said he noticed that the meeting took place in a question-and-answer format that seemed geared more toward officials than the public.
Former and current city and county officials dominated the conversation, but members of the public did have a chance to ask questions too.
"Why does it matter where it's located?" city resident Robert Morelli asked.
Barthel answered from the audience: "It makes all the difference in the world." Having dispatching at the police station allows officers to stay on the street, where they belong, he said. Otherwise, officers would need to respond to many of the nonemergency situations that dispatchers now handle, including walk-ins.
Morelli observed that helping with walk-in traffic could divert dispatchers from their primary duty.
"You're talking (comparing) apples with apples," Peterson, the city public works director, responded. He pointed out that dispatchers at the jail also sometimes have another duty - controlling jail doors.
The jail requires 24-hour supervision, and during late night hours, there are few jail-related tasks, county officials said. One person could do both jobs, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars over time.
But Sheppard said city police need at the police station all night as well.
"The city has a valid argument in making the same point," he said.
"I don't think we can look at emergency services the way you schedule a business," he added. "All it takes is one call or one situation and all that ... goes out the window."
Retired Assistant Police Chief Mark Stolen spent 16 years at the Hill County Sheriff's Office and 15 at the Havre Police Department.
He recalled when the jail was built in 1999 and dispatching was consolidated there. One dispatcher handled calls for every emergency in the city and county, and that person also controlled the jail. That system failed. The prospect of being an officer on the street and finding dead air was terrifying, and it happened, he said.
The city began its own 24-hour dispatching center in 2000.
Many people expressed concerns that the jail, built with a $4 million bond issue, was supposed to provide a consolidated dispatch center.
Robert Kaul said that as long as taxpayers are paying for the building, dispatching should be located at the jail.
Audience members said they hoped the issue would be settled soon.
"We haven't gotten anywhere in 30 years," said Karen Sloan, a county family planning nurse.