911 call center

911 call center dispatcher Kirby Focht keeps track of information on her screens.

Applause broke out after the Cowlitz County commissioners Tuesday voted 2-1 to create an independent 911 agency, separating emergency dispatch services from county control.

Commissioners Joe Gardner and Dennis Weber voted yes, while Arne Mortensen was the lone dissenting vote.

Gardner said the new Cowlitz 911 agency will reduce bureaucracy by consolidating governance of emergency dispatch under a single, nine-person board of directors. At least three governing bodies ran it before, leading to a leadership gap, confused lines of authority and other troubles.

“What came to mind was the old adage, too many cooks in the kitchen,” Gardner said. “What I’ve witnessed, a lot of the concerns and angst … that have boiled to the surface are symptoms of this multi-layered Big Mac … of governance.”

Gardner had worked closely in organizing the new 911 agency as a member of the 911 E-Board, one of the three governing bodies that have run the agency up to now.

The new agency will have three managerial employees and will cost about $236,000 more per year than emergency dispatch now costs the county, according to a consultant. Weber called that cost “the price of independence.”

The goal is to have the new agency running by January.

A parade of public officials from area cities, fire departments and law enforcement agencies stepped forward to support the ordinance, including Sheriff Mark Nelson.

“The important thing for me is to make sure that the best in public safety is being provided for our citizens,” he said. “If I wasn’t convinced of that, I wouldn’t be standing here now saying that I support this. I do believe this will give our citizens the best in public safety communication that we can have. It will make things better.”

Andy Ogden, assistant fire chief for Cowlitz Fire District 6, in Castle Rock, said it was rare to have this many officials in agreement.

“You put a group of fire chiefs in a room, and they’re lucky to come up with a consensus on what kind of pizza to order,” he said. “To really get this groundswell of support … please consider adopting this as written tonight.”

The governing boards and councils of 911 user agencies have already approved the new public authority.

Commissioner Dennis Weber added some last-minute changes that will allow the county to exercise some oversight of 911 agency operations and the new agency will give the county an annual report and budget. He said those are required by state law.

As the sole “nay” vote, Mortensen said he objected partly because he didn’t think the separation was necessary.

“What problem are we solving for the citizens?” he said. “I haven’t heard of any failures of 911 from some citizen trying to call and not being properly attended to.”

Kelso resident Rick Von Rock, a former union leader, echoed that sentiment.

“What am I going to get as a citizen, and what am I going to lose?” Von Rock said. “Am I going to get any more benefits, service-wise? Probably not. But what I am going to lose is the ability to have some sort of control over it.”

Von Rock also said he was worried that the new Cowlitz 911 would have less public accountability and would create more bureaucracy.

Mortensen added that he believed communication issues might not be fixed, even with a better structure.

“In my experience, you can take a terrible structure with constructive people and make it succeed, or you can take an excellent structure with unconstructive people and make it fail,” he said.

The process of developing a new governance structure started last summer, when the E-Board hired a consultant.

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