By Crystal McGough, Editor
TRUSSVILLE – Several residents attended the Trussville City Council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, to speak during public comments on the city’s decision to move Trussville’s police dispatching from in-house to Jefferson County 911 at the start of 2024. Trussville Fire and Rescue made the same move four years ago, and according to Fire Chief Tim Shotts, it has been an improvement, especially in regard to response times.
The first to speak was Jesse Odell, who expressed concerns that this move would result in a less personal approach, which could potentially negatively impact citizens with special needs.
“We want to keep our dispatch here local in Trussville,” Odell said. “One of the reasons for it, you’ll see my son back there is mentally disabled. He’s also autistic. When there’s an emergency in our home and police or fire have to come, they’re already aware of who my son is. … Over the last couple years, there’s been many situations nationwide where people who are disabled have been accidentally shot by law enforcement officers because they weren’t aware of this information. After speaking to Sheriff Pettway this last week … that’s not something Jefferson County has time to get to know the needs of in our community. So, to save $500,000, we’re also losing a lot of people here in Trussville that know our city better than Jefferson County people do.”
Mayor Buddy Choat responded to Odells concerns, saying that dispatchers working with the county will report directly to the Trussville Police Department.
“We don’t go through the Sheriff’s (Department). I don’t expect the Sheriff’s Department or their dispatchers to know much about Trussville,” he said. “All of our dispatchers have been offered an opportunity to interview and it sounds like most of them that can are going to accept the opportunity. They will be assigned to Trussville. … That’s part of the deal when we decided to consider moving; we wanted to make sure that we were covered like we’re covered now.”
Choat added that when someone calls 911 now, it goes to the county first. The county then calls Trussville’s dispatchers who send out the police.
“We’re eliminating one of those calls, which should expediate the time that the officers are going to be able to respond,” Choat said. “Our fire department’s been on it for several years now – Chief Shotts is here; I’m sure he could speak – service has been great; we haven’t missed a beat. Actually, providing better service than we were really (having) on our own at the fire department.”
Odell asked why Trussville’s dispatchers are being “cut off,” to which Choat responded, “We’re not cutting them off; we’re actually paying their salaries up there if they go work for the county.”
The next to speak was Jackie Carroll, who introduced herself as a lifelong resident of Trussville, whose grandfather was a former city councilman, and added that she had volunteered as both a firefighter and a dispatcher in Trussville.
“To say that you’re cutting out the middleman by sending it to 911 is not true,” she said. “Have any of you, other than Ben (Short), ever been in a dispatch center to know how it truly runs? Have you sat there? Have you answered the phone? Have you heard the person screaming on the other end? No. Our dispatchers know every officer by name, by number, by vehicle that they drive. You keep saying that we’re sending them over there. There are a few – a very few – that are going. … You are doing this city an injustice by taking people that know the area, that know the people of the city, and that know the police officers, out of the picture to save what? What are you going to do with the money you’re saving?”
Choat said the money saved would be distributed throughout the city’s general fund to support other departments.
“Our public safety department, police and fire, out of our $31-32 million budget, they’re budgeted for over $20 million of that, so we give them every opportunity to be successful,” he said. “We’re not cutting anybody out. At least we’re able to find them a place and I wouldn’t have done this without talking to our police chief and his leadership team. They had questions; we’ve met with them. I think all of those questions have been answered. So, I disagree. I think we’re going to have several (dispatchers) move.”
Deborah Wallace began her public comment time by presenting the mayor and council with a signed petition to keeps Trussville’s dispatchers in-house.
“We have 574 signatures on that petition, and we would like to present that,” Wallace said. “I would also like to say, along the lines of, ‘We’re not cutting any jobs in this process,’ currently that dispatch department runs with at least three people there. We are talking about taking it down to two, per your interview on the TV. You said eight or six employees; that’s not what we have right now. … We have 10 and we have two supervisors.”
According to Choat, six dispatchers for Trussville was Jefferson County’s proposal, but Trussville Police Chief Eric Rush and his staff suggested eight.
“So, the number came from our police department,” he said. “It wasn’t a number we just drew out of the air. That’s the number that our police chief and his staff said they felt more comfortable with.”
Additionally, Wallace said that Jefferson County 911 was already covering 19 cities, and Trussville would be its 20th.
“Some of those cities are as small as 50 residents. They’re not 26,000 people,” she said. “… There’s 34 cities in Jefferson County. If you look them up, Hoover, Homewood, Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, none of them have decided to take part in this service. So why would we? I thought that’s what we were aspiring to be.”
Choat explained that Hoover, Vestavia and Mountain Brook had all opted to move to Shelby County 911, but Wallace countered that Hoover is opening its own dispatch center.
The final speaker was Stephanie Carroll, who said she had a lot of experience calling Trussville’s dispatch while caring for her mother who passed away from breast cancer in 2015.
“I had the pleasure of talking to Jackie’s friend Connie on many occasions, who was a comforting and reassuring presence on the phone,” Carroll said. “I’m very concerned about this change, and I’m thankful for an opportunity to express that concern here at this meeting.
“One of my primary concerns is the safety of our Trussville police officers. Our dispatchers here in Trussville are very familiar with our police force in the area, in Trussville, and I’m concerned as the world becomes more and more dangerous that their safety might be compromised working with dispatchers at JeffCo who are not familiar with them or with our community.”
Carroll asked Mayor Choat what initially prompted this decision.
“It is cost saving, but really what prompted it was the experience we’ve already had through our fire department and what they’ve done, and the comments that I’ve received from Chief (Shotts),” Choat said. “Their service levels have not suffered. When we found out this was available – it’s been available for several years and we didn’t do it – but at this time, … I think Chief Rush and his staff will tell you that it’s been a challenge to find qualified dispatchers.”
Choat added that Trussville has also seen a lot of turnover in the dispatch department recently.
“Quite honestly, yeah, it is saving money, but in our opinion – and the council has agreed – it’s not going to sacrifice service, timewise,” he said. “If some of our dispatchers don’t go up there, there will be some unfamiliarity; I give you that. But, I’m hoping that at least six of them will go up there. And if they don’t, then we’ll work with the 911 and make sure that we get Trussville serviced just like they have been in the past.”
As to how much this move will be saving the city, Choat said that it will save at least half a million dollars. The contract with Jefferson County is still in the process of being drafted for Trussville’s legal counsel to review.
Finally, Carroll asked if the mayor and council have any plans to collect feedback from Trussville’s residents and police officers about their satisfaction with the Jefferson County service, after it is implemented. The mayor said they’d be glad to.