Commissioners: 911 dispatch center under control

ANGOLA, Ind. (WANE) – A day after Steuben County Sheriff Tim Troyer sent a letter to the media expressing concerns that the 911 communications center is in a crisis, the County Commissioners, who oversee the 911 center, said everything is under control and public safety is not in jeopardy.

In his email, Troyer said staffing is at a critically low level, putting emergency responders and the community at risk. The department has 12 positions in it, but after a dispatcher quit last week via text message, there were only four on staff, Troyer said. He added that the communications director, Cindy Snyder, handed in her resignation Thursday, which leaves three people in the department.

Friday, Commissioners Loretta Smart and Ron Smith both said while there have been conversations about her resignation, Snyder has not given them the official paperwork.

“She told me to my face and again on the phone last night that her last day is the 21st. That’s the notice she gave them. I’m going off what Cindy told me. She said she can’t do this any more … and asked me to help and step in. That put me in the know of what’s happening here and I have sworn to protect the public. Now it’s affecting my ability to protect the people in Steuben County and now it’s time to step up,” Troyer said.

Troyer’s message came after the commissioners had an executive session Thursday night, which is a non-public meeting, to discuss issues with the communications center. Since 1992, the county commissioners have overseen the communications department. But, Troyer said now it needs to be moved under the sheriff’s department so staffing can be built back up properly. He said he’s supplying deputies to help with manpower through the weekend to make sure the center is staffed well enough to be safe.

“Everything is under control. There is no need for anyone to be concerned,” Commissioner Smart said.

Smith echoed Smart’s comments saying the public is not in danger.

“To say we’re in crisis mode and we need to act in such a way and to alarm the citizens by putting it out that commissioners do not understand and are not willing to work is inappropriate,” he said.

Smith doesn’t deny that the communications center has had a hard time keeping people, but said allegations that dispatchers routinely work 16-hour shifts aren’t true. He said that happened only once. He added that wages make it hard to retain people too. The starting pay for a dispatcher is $27,000, Troyer said.

“We become a training field. They can go one county from here and make $20,000 more. There were some personality issues too, but I’m not going to dwell on that,” Smith said.

Smith said the employee who quit last week had been “sitting on” 20 applications, which he was just made aware of.

“We could have had people brought on board and they were not brought on so the shortage was, in part, manufactured,” he said.

Smith said they will be hiring and in the meantime other dispatchers from the area have been offering to come help fill the gaps.

Another concern Troyer brought up was unauthorized people being in the control center and seeing confidential information. IDACS is a system that law enforcement uses to get personal information about people, including license plates, driver’s licence numbers and criminal history. Troyer said people who should not have access to IDACS information have been at communications desks and were able to see it. He said that included a county councilman.

“I understand their interest in the budgeting, but for them to sit at the console and have access to that data is inappropriate,” Troyer said.

Commissioner Smith, who is on the IDACS board and has some access to the day-to-day operations, said that’s not true. He explained that to get in, people have to have a swipe card and everyone has to sign in. While he’s been in the center to observe operations, and brought his grandchilden in to teach them about how emergency responders come to help them, he said he nor they anyone else has seen confidential information.

Friday, the Angola police chief joined the conversation.

“Unauthorized people should not be allowed access,” Angola Police Chief Stu Hamblen, who is also on the IDACS Board in Steuben County, said. “The right decision is turning the county communications over to the Sheriff’s Office. At stake are the lives of all public safety workers and especially the citizens we serve if the dispatch center is not put under the Sheriff’s office supervision.”

See Chief Hamblen’s complete letter. 

The Steuben County prosecutor, Michael Hess, also issued a statement supporting moving the communications department under the sheriff’s department.

“This is broken. To fix it requires leadership, experience and resources and those are three things I brought to the table,” Sheriff Troyer said. “This isn’t the time for finger-pointing. This is the time to fix it and I gave them an offer to fix it.”

Commissioner Smith said he wants to keep the communications department under the commissioners’ oversight because of additional funding from the state.

“You know last year in the General Assembly the issue of 911, how they were trying to get additional funding through cell phones, etc. Me being the past president of the Indiana County Commissioners and fighting that fight trying to keep the funding coming here, we want to keep number one control of those funds because it goes directly into 911 and we don’t want it being compromised and being used is any way shape or from so as a result we have and will continue to maintain a quality program based on those funds,” Smith said.

Smith said he didn’t have any other reasons why he doesn’t want the department to move out of the commissioners’ supervision.

Other counties have several ways for how the communications department is managed. Some have created a 911 board to run it instead of the commissioners or the sheriff’s department.

“Here, the preference of the three commissioners is to keep it under the commissioners. That way [the director] works for us and we feel we provide adequate coverage for our citizens. For heaven’s sake, we don’t want anyone being at risk and at this point I can safely say there is no risk to the citizens of Steuben County,” Smith said.

Troyer strongly disagrees.

“This is about the community. This is about preserving public safety and protecting the very sensitive information that flows through the channels down in that department,” Troyer said.

The commissioners will have a public meeting at 9 a.m. Monday in the commissioner’s meeting room in the Community Center at 317 S. Wayne Street. Commissioner Smith said there would be an opportunity for the public to make comments.

The commissioners are expected to make a decision at that meeting about whether to keep the communications department under its supervision or move it under the sheriff’s department. Smith said he anticipates it will stay under the commissioners’ control.

“This will work. It will be a quality program. It always has been and it will continue to be,” Smith said.

The following is the entire statement from Steuben County Prosecutor Michael Hess:

“As Steuben County Prosecutor and an IDACS Board Member, I am concerned with the current state of the Steuben County Communications Division.  The information received from day-to-day law enforcement operations through the Communications Division is vital for the safe and effective operation of law enforcement.  Moreover, the dissemination of the information under the strict rules we must adhere to is best done by those responsible for its care, namely law enforcement.

“Therefore, I believe the Steuben County Sheriff’s Department is in the best position to maintain and control the day-to-day operations of such critical information and communications.  Further, I believe it is imperative to the integrity of the communications system and the ultimate safety of the people of Steuben County to have the knowledge and experience of a trained law enforcement officer manning this aspect of our local law enforcement efforts.”

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