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Dispatch report less about calls, more about politics

(March 29, 2013) The results of recently released inquiry into issues with the city’s emergency dispatch system has left more questions than it has answers, regarding exactly how the local government’s internal politics are steering its ability to address operational issues.

The report, which has only now been disseminated to city officials, is the result of a review conducted at the city’s request this past fall by the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Public Safety Management.

The report cites, as its impetus, “ongoing complaints about the [emergency services] department’s performance emanating from the agencies it serves.”

In Ocean City, the emergency dispatch and 911 call center is a separate entity from both the police and fire departments, and is run under the supervision of the Emergency Services Department, which also coordinates the resort’s disaster planning and recovery functions. Incoming calls are routed by Emergency Services staff to the appropriate response unit.

The ICMA inquiry was reportedly ordered in August, in response to concerns that had been building over the summer of 2012 and were subsequently brought before the City Council.

“The council voted unanimously to ask the ICMA to come in and look at our call center,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight. “It was something that was overdue, something that should be done every year or so.”

However, the inquiry itself does not make clear what the specific nature of any dispatch failures were. The report does note that the Ocean City Fire Department recorded 10 instances of delays in response times that could have compromised public safety during 2011.

“There had been several issues with calls,” Knight said. “A lot of those are day-to-day management issues that aren’t part of the council’s dealings.”

Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald is currently attending a conference and was unable to contribute as of press time.

“I know there were some concerns,” said former Ocean City Police Department Chief Bernadette DiPino, who was chief at the time but did not take part in the inquiry due to her impending departure for the chief’s post in Sarasota, Fla.

“I don’t remember all the specifics relative to it, but one of the things I was concerned about was making sure, when someone calls into communications, the dispatcher gets enough information and enough accurate information to give our officers,” DiPino said. “There were a lot of reasons going into it, but that’s why the group was convened to ask if communications had all the best practices in place.”

But the specifics of these allegedly botched calls themselves do not appear to have been investigated. Instead, the bulk of the report is based upon interviews with OCPD, OCFD, and Emergency Services management staff regarding their working relationship, or lack thereof, with one another.

This has led several city officials to wonder privately why the town paid $17,000 for a consultation on personal politics, even though they seemingly pertained little to the core issues outlined by the city at the beginning of the report.

According to the ICMA document, city staff participating in the review noted a number of issues centering on funding and training for seasonal emergency dispatch operators, including points such as “summer staff members do not receive sufficient training” and “supervisors become involved in working a console during staffing shortages, interfering with their ability to supervise other personnel.”

It also notes a long-lingering conflict between the city and Worcester County’s emergency dispatch system. Under the current setup, all 911 calls identified as originating in the county – including Ocean City – are routed through the public service answering system in Snow Hill. In the case of Ocean City calls, these are then re-routed to the town’s own dispatch center at 65th Street. The extra step reportedly often causes delays or disconnections.

“The director of emergency services has made requests in the past to view the dispatch information from Snow Hill, but has been denied access to this information,” the report said.

However, all of the ICMA’s recommendations to improve the city’s dispatch performance focus on another issue – the observation that “communication between the fire departments and the Emergency Services Department was very poor.

“This situation appears to have been declining over the past five years,” the report notes, noting the testimony of OCFD officials who “did not trust” Emergency Services leadership and thought they were “unable to handle [their] job responsibilities.”

This prickly relationship over the past five years is well recognized within the city’s ranks. In 2007, allegations arose that the city was planning to place Theobald, as the Emergency Services director, over both the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company and an expanded paid fire corps, and whose operational directives would supersede those of the volunteer company.

OCFD Chief Chris Larmore, then the OCVFC’s elected chief, said the plan was unsound and open to inconsistency. The OCVFC then declared that it would move its primary operations to West Ocean City due to its inability to operate under the city’ new plan.

A compromise was reached under which Larmore would become the interim head of a fully combined fire department in which both volunteer and paid firefighters and EMS personnel would serve under the same administrative structure. Under the Memorandum of Understanding subsequently established with the OCVFC, Larmore had the right to appeal directly to the mayor and City Council on the volunteers’ behalf.

Larmore subsequently become the full-time, fully compensated OCFD chief, creating somewhat of a limbo position relative to the city’s other department heads given that he was, until recently, still a party to the volunteers’ MOU.

The ICMA’s recommendation was that “fire services be placed under the direction of the city manager,” a move that was made earlier this year by revising the OCVFC MOU to remove Larmore as a specific party.

“That was one recommendation that we wanted to implement immediately,” Knight said.

“ICMA recognizes that there is a political component involved in the current management model that has the council oversee the fire services,” the report states. “We believe that this is the primary reason that has caused the problems between the Emergency Services Department and the fire departments.

“If City Council members differ in their opinions about problems, priorities, or how to deal with the inevitable management challenges, finding solutions may be difficult without the strong centralized leadership that the council-manager for of government offers.”

The ICMA also recommended regularly scheduled meetings between fire, police, and emergency services management, something which appears to have been implemented even before the report was issued.

“Arrangements have already been made, prior to the release of this report,” Larmore said this week, for quarterly reviews of fire dispatches.

“The Director Emergency Services, myself, and the city manager look forward to our first meeting next Wednesday.”

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