A study to find ways to speed up Loudoun’s 911 calls when seconds count has met resistance from Leesburg Police Chief Greg Brown and backlash from Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman.
Today, the county has separate dispatchers for the Combined Fire and Rescue System and the Sheriff’s Office. 911 calls are answered first by fire-rescue dispatchers, and although they operate out of the same room, if the call is a police matter, it must be transferred to a sheriff’s office dispatcher. That can lead to some 911 callers having to answer the same questions more than once and a delay in emergency personnel’s response time.
“Even though the sheriff’s office is located in the same room, it’s still a transfer, so in essence regarding 911 calls it almost doesn’t matter that they’re in the same room,” said Sherri Bush, the lead author of a study on the county’s 911 answering by Federal Engineering.
If they are transferred to the Leesburg Police Department, which also has its own dispatchers, the situation is even more complicated—Leesburg does not use the same computerized system for handling calls as the county, so any notes the county’s dispatchers take on a call don’t go to Leesburg police. Leesburg also has only basic 911 equipment.
“The bigger issue really is for the residents of Leesburg, because they are receiving services that are equivalent to maybe the early ’80s,” Bush said. “Because the call-takers there have nothing when it comes over except for a phone number, and they have to query the callers to find out where they are.”
And in rare cases, callers whose situation or location is uncertain can be transferred back and forth.
As a result, the county-commissioned study has recommended restructuring the Emergency Communications Center where those calls are answered with universal call-takers, who can handle and dispatch 911 calls for fire, rescue, the sheriff’s office, and police.
But County Administrator Tim Hemstreet told the Board of Supervisors’ finance committee last week he could not recommend that—because two of the biggest stakeholders in the study, Sheriff Mike Chapman and Leesburg Police Chief Greg Brown, are opposed.
“If the sheriff doesn’t want to consolidate, then from a practical perspective, I don’t believe that we would have a successful consolidation,” Hemstreet said. “He is very much an important and integral part of the service.”
Chapman has argued that while universal call-takers are indeed the fastest way to answer and dispatch 911 calls, consolidating all those departments’ functions to universal call-takers creates a problem of accountability.
“It might be easy for me to blame the head of emergency management, but really if something goes wrong, I’ll be held accountable as sheriff,” Chapman said.
He has also criticized the study for drawing comparisons to other counties with different forms of government than Loudoun. It can be difficult to compare to other counties—while every Virginia county must elect a sheriff, other large counties similar in size have a police department to handle law enforcement.
However, he said, he is more open to the idea of consolidating all 911 communication under the sheriff’s office. He pointed out that the majority of 911 calls in Loudoun are for police matters.
“Ultimately, if you have a mess up on that—certainly if you had like a school shooting or something, and you had problems with dispatch—it’s going to come back on the sheriff, and therein lies the problem,” Chapman said. “So it’s just a matter of having some ability to coordinate this in a way that is fair.”
Short of consolidation, he has recommended pursuing other technological and process-oriented improvements to 911 call-taking and dispatch.
But Combined Fire-Rescue System Chief Keith Johnson strongly supported the study and its recommendation. He said the challenges in the study cannot be fixed with technological solutions, and that additional training “will not change the technological limitations or the status quo” in the emergency communications center. He said he spoke from his experience both working as a universal call-taker and overseeing emergency communications in Loudoun.
“Notwithstanding significant concerns expressed from other agencies included in the study, Loudoun County Fire and Rescue recognizes there are identified vulnerabilities in the study that should eclipse egocentric concerns—more specifically, the need for universal call-takers and formalized written agreements” between emergency agencies, Johnson said.
The county finance committee sent the issue to a future meeting for more discussion. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office is working on its own study.
Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said it’s the county’s “responsibility to optimize everything as a system, not the individual departments or entities,” pointing to a massive reorganization of the county’s combined volunteer and professional fire and rescue department during the last board’s term.
“I kind of like the consultant’s recommendations. We’re going to have to talk about that more,” Buona said. “I would like to see a consolidation. I think that’s to the public’s benefit, and the public comes first over the needs of any single department, as far as I’m concerned.”
The disagreement continued after the meeting, according to multiple witnesses. County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), who during the meeting had pressed Chapman on why he hadn’t made improvements already, approached the sheriff to shake hands. According to those witnesses, Chapman replied, “I’m not going to shake your hand,” and when Randall walked away, said, “You get back here.” Randall left the board room.
Asked about the confrontation, Chapman said while he and supervisors sometimes disagree, “we’ll work something out.”
“I give them a lot of credit for the work that they do, but that doesn’t mean that we’re always going to agree on things… That’s what’s good about government, it gives us a chance to hold each other accountable,” Chapman said.