County Director: Improvements in Hiring, Infrastructure Still Needed at 911 Center

Lewis County might need to consider the possibility of asking county residents for more funding for the 911 Communications Center in the near future to maintain the center as a vital part of Lewis County’s first-response network, Emergency Services Director Steve Mansfield told the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday.

“We’re going to get into some very difficult hurdles here in the very near future,” he said, mentioning radio repair, upkeep of the county’s 911 communications infrastructure and the need for the center to maintain staffing levels and create a fund balance for extra expenses. 

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 Fire and law agencies pay to use the dispatch center, but that money mainly goes toward operations, Mansfield said. 

“They’re having trouble paying for the center itself, much less all these other things that make a communications center work,” he said. “We’re still going to have to prioritize asking the public for some help.”

Mansfield and commissioners Edna Fund and Bobby Jackson talked briefly about the difficulty in passing a tax to fund law enforcement, as evidenced by a law enforcement sales tax measure that failed in Mason County with 67 percent of residents voting no this November.

“It doesn’t do any good to have a big law enforcement or big fire agency if we can’t talk to them or get them to calls,” Mansfield said. “It’s right around the corner. It’s always been right around the corner.”

Mansfield briefed the Board of Lewis County Commissioners Tuesday on the status of the center, ranging in topics from staffing levels, hiring practices, labor negotiations, an interlocal agreement with user agencies and big drains on financial resources coming up in the near future. 

The center is still struggling with maintaining full staffing, Mansfield said. 

“Our staffing is not full. We have one of our new hires that is resigning at the end of the month. Tough job, not for her,” Mansfield said. “The problem with that is it took us eight, nine months to get to that point. I need to compress that time frame.”

The center’s hiring process has three components that need to be addressed, he said — testing, background investigations and training. 

“All three of those have been identified (and) need major improvements, revamping and changes,” Mansfield said. 

The first testing process is conducted through an outside agency. Lewis County currently conducts its background investigations into potential dispatch employees. 

Mansfield said the way these investigations have been conducted in the past is not consistent. 

“Our background process is severely lacking and it has been for years,” he said, noting that he recently worked with others to create a new packet outlining those investigations. 

Six communications center employees are undergoing training currently, he said. 

In the future, Mansfield said both he and representatives of user agencies would be in favor of a study on the efficiency of the center itself.

“I need some help with looking at the efficiencies of staffing levels and schedules,” he said. 

However, he noted the center’s budget doesn’t include a fund balance, meaning he doesn’t have the extra money to afford such a study at this time. 

Creating such a fund is a future goal, and part of the work going into updating Lewis County’s interlocal agreement with fire and law enforcement agencies that use the 911 center, Mansfield told the commissioners. 

“We’re still looking at for targeting an implementation date, and it’s very aggressive, for the first of the year, in January,” he said. “I’m having some really, really good meetings with fire and law. We’ve made some tremendous progress.”

Part of the ILA update process has included mending strained relationships with fire and law agencies. The Centralia and Chehalis police departments and Riverside Fire Authority joined together to commission a study on what it would take for them to build their own 911 center earlier this year. The results have not yet been released. 

When he took over as director of the center in March, Mansfield said he wanted to “reset” the center struggling with low staffing, low moral and frustrations from fire and law agencies.

“I continue to push the concept that they are not my customers, they are my partners,” he said Tuesday. 

RFA Chief Mike Kytta and Chief Carl Nielsen of the Centralia Police Department have been working closely with Mansfield as fire and law representatives for the ILA update.

Also, dispatchers at the 911 center haven’t had a contract since 2015, and are currently in labor negotiations with the county. 

“By the end of next year one way or another we’ll be moving on several key points and issues we need to to put the center back where it needs to be,” Mansfield said.

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