First Responders Issue Notice Of ‘No Confidence’ In Marshall County 911 Director
Representatives of Marshall County’s first responder community say they want the public at large to know about the petition of ‘no confidence’ in Marshall County E-911 Director Chris Freeman for two main reasons. On one hand, they’re concerned first responder agencies from neighboring counties may agree to join in a regional dispatching facility unaware of the existing safety issues. On the other hand, they say the existing issues put both first responders and the community at large at risk.
Marshall County Sheriff Eddie McGuire has taken the lead role, saying many first responders including firefighters, EMTs, dispatchers and law enforcement officers from other agencies have either been directed not to sign the petition or speak publicly about the issues--or they’re afraid of retaliation. He started collecting signatures on Monday and set the deadline for return at 8 p.m. Thursday.
In four days, 150 first responders (of the estimated 200 in the county, many of whom respond for multiple agencies) signed the ‘no confidence’ petition and 14 spouses of first responders signed a second stating the same. McGuire said the first responders hope the petitions will result in the resolution of longstanding, multi-agency conflicts which result in safety concerns.
“We do not have confidence in our 911 Director Chris Freeman to take us to where we need to go. Matter of fact, we are pretty confident he will take us where we don't want to go,” McGuire told WKMS. “The goal of the petition is to notify the Fiscal Court and the public the undersigned first responders of the petition have no confidence in the direction of the 911 center under Freeman. What the fiscal court does with that knowledge, we have no control over.”
This is not the first time McGuire has been publicly at odds with Freeman or with Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal. The most two recent incidents involved the recent near-loss of access to a key informational database, which he says would have resulted in a major blow for Marshall County’s law enforcement officers, and the budget clash regarding the school resource officers provided to the county’s schools by the sheriff’s office.
McGuire said the petition came about as the result of a meeting last week with representatives from multiple first responder agencies within Marshall County. He said their first request: place priority on repairing the faulty radio/tower system rather than the upfit of the new, multi-million dollar 911 center under construction in Draffenville. Their second request: “a seat at the table.”
“We no longer have a seat at the table with what goes on at 911. We want the 911 board reinstated with representation from the first responder community,” he said.
The ordinance currently in effect places authority of appointing the 911 director with the county judge/executive, with approval of the Fiscal Court. The ordinance also calls for an “advisory board” which could be called “as necessary” to advise on policies and procedures “not involving personnel or Criminal Justice Information System/LINK/NCIC.
The first item listed on the petition, the “dangerously unreliable radio communications network,” McGuire said was supposed to be a top priority for Freeman when he was tapped as Marshall County’s E-911 director in May 2019. He said the fiscal court in 2019 allocated $46,000 for the system (roughly $20,000 of that from Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) funds). But it’s nearly September 2020 and the issue persists.
During the August 18, 2020 Marshall County Fiscal Court meeting, Freeman provided an update on the dispatching center currently under construction in Draffenville and showed pictures of a specialized floor being installed.
During the same meeting and in an exchange with MCSO Major Tim Reynolds regarding communications issues, Freeman acknowledged the radio communications issue persists. He told the court members he ordered necessary equipment from China in December but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it didn’t arrive until March 2. He said the project is still on hold because he has to get a coax cable to hang the repeater, among the unforeseen delays.
Freeman also said resolving the radio communications issue is a priority for him because it negatively impacts his ability to recruit other communities to join Marshall County E-911, which aspires to become a regional dispatching center.
Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal, during the same meeting, said the fiscal court “is doing its due diligence to get the infrastructure in place.”
“Everyone just needs to be patient. But it is getting done,” he added.
McGuire told WKMS one of his officers, Deputy Aaron Lane, was recently in a physical altercation with a suspect near mile marker 38 on I-69, just six miles from the dispatch center. He said during the incident, the dispatcher acknowledges during the recorded incident she wanted to ensure Lane received a message ‘because we know our radios aren’t very good.’
“When he would key up, it sounded like a cell phone reception that was garbled, like he was going in a low spot,” McGuire said. “We've had days when deputies are standing in the front parking lot of the sheriff's office and the radios are garbled, I mean, you're 80 feet from the person you're talking to and you might as well yell at them to get a better chance of them understanding what you're going to say.”
McGuire spoke of the late KSP Trooper Cameron Ponder who was shot and killed during a traffic stop on I-24 in Lyon County in Sept. 2015. He said after being shot, Cameron was able to clearly communicate to dispatch he had been shot, and tell them when he started losing consciousness. Had it not been for that, McGuire said, Ponder’s killer, who fled on foot, might not have been caught that evening.
“If [Ponder] wouldn't have gotten out on either one of those transmissions, there's no telling how long he would have been there. And we would never have apprehended that murder suspect that night,” he said. “You think about how important that radio, you only get one chance, you may not get that chance to repeat your traffic, your radio communication, because you may be dead by the time they tell you to repeat.”
McGuire said when the lives of responders are at higher risk due to insufficient communications infrastructure, “it’s insulting to sit through a picture presentation of the big screen [in the fiscal courtroom] of the $96,000 flooring system that was put in at the new 911 center.”
“Imagine the importance of that $96,000, how far could it have gone in making this radio system much safer, much quicker. And that's really the kind of the last point of our petition, you know, the exorbitant amount of spending on unnecessary projects. ...That flooring is nice, but it's not necessarily near to the level of improved radio systems,” he said. “And for [Freeman] to say that he's lost sleep for this and that... you studied enough to order a flooring system. The only reason, in my opinion, the reason [the radio communication issue] has been brought to the attention now is because it's hurting his vision. Being able to recruit new communities. That's not my opinion, that's his literal statement.”
Two Marshall County first responders who are not in law enforcement asked to speak with WKMS but requested not to be named or have their agencies identified, for fear of retaliation. They said when the repeater Freeman referenced during the August 18, 2020 Fiscal Court meeting is installed, that won’t fix the communication issues for all agencies--just the sheriff’s office. They said the rescue squad, nine fire departments and ambulance service will still have spotty service at best.
They said when first responders are unable to communicate their location and resources needed for the situation they’re in, it puts the responders and the person/people for whom they’re responding in danger. A few examples they posited: responders in large buildings such as nursing homes; incidents which involve more than one scene; the ability to call for mutual aid from other departments/agencies. And house fires, for example, they said require certain non-emergency agencies to respond such as the power or gas company to shut off service before firefighters can combat the flames.
The responders said another common issue with the radio communications: the channels frequently fail. And even if dispatch sends out a call signal on an alternative channel, not all responders have equipment which read all channels so it’s a common occurrence only about 50% receive the page they’re needed--leaving scenes shorthanded.
“Freeman is out trying to get people to buy into a regional center when we’re not taking care of our own,” they said. “I am worried for other agencies that they might buy into what we have right now and something that hasn’t even been proven when we’re having these problems.”
The county fire districts worked out a collective pot of funds for the purpose of updating what they say is an antiquated system but once established, the sources told WKMS, the fire districts were told by Freeman the matter wasn’t theirs to manage. They claim the radio system was “commandeered” and ever since, has continued to decline with no attempts at repair.
They say the first responder agencies have tried, collectively, to open the lines of communication with Freeman. They say they want to discuss the issues and work together toward a resolution. But they say he won’t attend meetings or hear their concerns. Which is why they say they’re asking the Fiscal Court to reinstate the 911 board that was dismantled in early 2017.
“We’ve tried everything we can do to get a reliable radio system before somebody dies. We’re at our last straw and we’re hoping this petition will get the fiscal court to listen to us,” they said.
They noted the board which managed oversight of the county’s 911 center prior to 2017 had members representing a number of first responder agencies and community stakeholders. They believe that needs to be reinstated.
“We need some way to make the 911 director accountable to someone besides the judge so we can have a voice,” they explained. “It’s about accountability.”
Freeman did not respond to a request from WKMS for further information and comment.