NEW PORT RICHEY — A year after Sheriff Chris Nocco and County Administrator Michele Baker pledged to work together to improve Pasco County's emergency communications, the 911 center remains in flux amid finger-pointing and mistrust.
Among the problems:
• The director's position has been empty since fall 2014.
• A 2015 county report stating that 99 percent of the calls are answered in less than 10 seconds is now in doubt after Jody Kenyon, who had been acting as the communications center director, acknowledged to another agency that the county's software didn't account for the time callers must wait for an available operator.
• Supervisors reprimanded a call-taker and ordered additional training and oversight of his work after the county was embarrassed by a recent case in which the employee refused to send a deputy after a citizen complained about a wrong-way driver on a Wesley Chapel highway.
• There are 15 vacancies on the 82-employee call-taking/dispatching staff, and new hires must undergo 16 weeks of training before they are allowed to work on their own. Staffing shortages are a dilemma within the industry, not just in Pasco. The department answered more than 525,000 calls last year and dispatched assistance in more than 252,000 instances, nearly three-fourths of which were cases for deputies.
• But even at full staff, according to a just-compiled review by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, that's not enough. It suggests hiring 13 additional dispatchers and three supervisors. The county, however, has an adequate number of call-takers — 50 — if all positions are filled, the report says.
"The problems with call answering that we have been experiencing are due to vacancies, not due to a lack of authorized positions,'' Baker told county commissioners in a March 31 memorandum.
Baker also named newly hired emergency management director Kevin Guthrie as acting director at the communications center, replacing Kenyon, who returned to his job as technical services manager. Kenyon had been acting director for 18 months. The move came after Baker became aware of both the tainted statistical report and the staffing review, which she said had not been shared with her.
"We just want this fixed,'' Nocco said in an interview prior to Guthrie's new assignment.
Nocco noted that the public wrongly perceives his agency is in charge of emergency communications for the county. It's not. County fire/rescue and the sheriff combined their separate dispatching systems in October 2013 under the county government's auspices.
But the Sheriff's Office isn't a detached observer. For the past year, Lt. Dan Olds has served as the assistant communications director in charge of operations, training and quality assurance — essentially everything but information technology.
Both Nocco and Baker praise Olds and others for the improvements at the communications center since March 2015, when commissioners agreed to put the lieutenant in as assistant director and to follow the sheriff's recommendations for a quality control manager and two compliance specialists to ensure employees followed appropriate call-taking and dispatching protocols.
Nocco said at the time that the center wrongly focused on dispatching speed instead of gathering information, which put deputies at risk. He also told reporters he had lost faith in Baker's leadership, but backtracked during a commission meeting and pledged to work with the administrator to improve the 911 center.
Last week, however, Nocco was back at the commission podium. In light of the Wesley Chapel incident, he reiterated his call for a sheriff's captain to be named as the permanent full-time director of the center, saying the lack of leadership was detrimental to the operation. But he declined Commissioner Ted Schrader's request for the sheriff to meet personally with Baker.
"I'm trying to keep this above board, but when trust is an issue, that's my problem,'' Nocco said.
He advocated promoting Olds to captain and naming him director of the communications center. At least two commissioners, Jack Mariano and Mike Moore, indicated a willingness to do that before agreeing to a two-week delay.
"There's people's lives at risk. You know that. There's people who aren't getting through,'' Nocco told commissioners. "We just need leadership.''
In an interview, Baker said Olds, who does not have a bachelor's degree, hasn't applied for the job and doesn't meet the minimum qualifications set by the Consolidated Communications Board, a four-member panel including Baker and Nocco, or their subordinates, that meets monthly to review the 911 center operations. Baker also questioned how the director would be accountable if he worked for a constitutional officer but ran a county department that is answerable to the County Commission.
Additionally, both she and Pasco emergency services director Scott Cassin said the issues the sheriff raised had not been brought to the attention of the Consolidated Communications Board.
"Why is it I only hear about these issues when the sheriff is at the (commission) podium?'' Baker asked.
Commissioners are scheduled to consider the sheriff's request again at their April 12 meeting. Baker is proposing multiple alternatives, including the status quo; allowing the Sheriff's Office to take complete control of the center, or a hybrid model in which the Consolidated Communications Board manages the center and hires and supervises the center's director.
Nocco, who previously was open to a complete takeover of the 911 center by his agency, said in an interview he no longer wanted to do that because it would create logistical issues for personnel, including moving employees from the county payroll to the Sheriff's Office and requiring a change in employee benefits.
"It's just more bureaucracy,'' he said.
Guthrie, however, would be a suitable permanent solution if he also doesn't have to manage the Emergency Operations Center, the sheriff said.
"Just put him in charge of 911 and focus solely on one problem at a time,'' Nocco said. "The guy is good. He's qualified."