What was once simply an idea has now become a serious option: the Cowlitz County 911 Center could become a standalone entity separate from the county.
According to 911 Director Deanna Wells, the 911 E-Board met with Reinke & Associates, a Thorp-based consulting firm, twice already to make tentative plans for setting up a governance board. Meetings with the consulting firm will take place every month until November, when the board must make a final decision.
Consultant Steve Reinke explored three different options with the board, according to Wells: Continue as a Cowlitz County department, merge with another county’s 911 center — most likely Clark County — or become an independent entity.
Wells said the stakeholders from the board, which include representatives from the cities of Longview and Kelso, the county, and the county’s Fire Officials Association, all leaned towards the latter idea.
Moving to a separate agency would help streamline the 911 center’s processes and eliminate conflicts, according to Kelso City Manager and E-board vice chair Steve Taylor.
“There will be clearer direction and clearer calls of authority to carry out the policy that the user agencies want to see implemented,” Taylor said. “Because the 911 department is a department of the county, the county has its own sovereignty and its own rules.”
Currently, Taylor said, the county’s management of the department does sometimes come into conflict with the 911 center’s users.
Taylor said the tentative plan is to create a new nine-member board just for the new 911 center. There would likely be three members from the city of Longview, two from Cowlitz County, one from the city of Kelso, one from Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue. The last two members may rotate between the county’s smaller cities and fire districts.
E-Board member and Cowlitz 2 Commissioner Alan Headley agreed with Taylor that a separate 911 department would simplify things for the call center.
“The current governance structure is fairly complex, and I think it causes some confusion at times, as far as chain of command,” he said. “I think a more streamlined governance structure is a good thing.”
Wells has voiced her grievances with the 911 call center’s complicated power structure in the past.
Currently, she answers to the E-Board, the 911 council, and the county commissioners. Although the E-Board is meant to be her main supervisor, the Commissioners wrote in a January 2016 letter that because she is a county employee, and the 911 Center uses county equipment, they have sway over the center’s decisions.
This left Wells and the center in limbo.
“I supposedly answer to the 911 board, but nobody knows who my boss is,” Wells told The Daily News in October 2016.
E-Board members hope severing the 911 center from Cowlitz County will alleviate this conflict.
However, Headley warned, “nothing is carved in stone yet.”
There are pros and cons of each with of the three options, according to meeting notes. Reinke agreed that becoming an independent agency would give the center a more simple decision-making process and a clearer line of governance.
However, Reinke also warned the board that severing the 911 agency would result in higher administrative and overhead costs, as well as increased staff turnover due to the change.
When contacted by The Daily News, Reinke declined to comment on the meetings.
Wells said other Washington 911 call centers already have split from their counties, including Grays Harbor and Kitsap counties. Chelan and Douglas counties formed an independent 911 center together, since the Wenatchee area is split between the two counties.
Richard Kurton, director of Kitsap 911, said his center split from Kitsap County in December 2016 and views the move as a success.
“We realized that we needed a 911 center that was much more nimble,” he said. “Not to complain about anything related to the county, we have a great working relationship with them, but the county employs well over 1,000 people, and county government has some built-in checks and balances that cause processes to slow down.”
Wells said as long as the various stakeholders involved agree on a plan for the 911 center, she’ll be happy, noting there’s been a call for more control for the 27 years she’s worked there.
“I feel like when you empower people and they have input, you work together a lot smoother, because you all have a stake in it,” she said. “You want it to work, and this is the direction that the stakeholders are going. So if this is what everyone agrees is the best thing, this is the direction we should go.”
Wells also said the 911 council and E-Board have yet to decide on a new location for the call center, which is currently housed in the Hall of Justice basement. This issue may end up being solved by the 911 center’s new board in the future.