For the first time in Emergency Management Director Steve Mansfield’s tenure, the Lewis County 911 Center has four supervisors to oversee operations — part of a renewed focus on bolstering staffing and service at the center.
“A supervisor in a 911 center is critical to ensure all the things that go on in a busy time are happening,” Mansfield said. “It’s critical that I have four supervisors for four shifts.”
The county’s newest hire, Kristin Kingery, comes to the center from Mason County, where she spent five years as a dispatcher — three of those as a supervisor. She said she’s had a positive introduction to Lewis County so far.
“Lewis County truly cares about their dispatchers,” she said. “They truly care about their staff. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth, there’s a lot of training opportunities. They take good care of you. … I feel like I have an opportunity here to make a positive difference in the center and Lewis County.”
For Mansfield, Kingery’s hire represents what he sees as an ongoing shift in the county’s 911 services. Mansfield, Lewis County’s former elected sheriff, assumed oversight of the 911 center in 2017 when it was moved under his agency’s purview after a period of turmoil.
Dave Anderson, then the 911 Manager, was the subject of a no-confidence vote from dispatchers, who cited poor working conditions. Chiefs of first response agencies who rely on Lewis County 911 complained of poor leadership and low staffing levels. Mansfield was charged with turning the center around, which he says he’s done.
“It’s a whole different place,” he said. “You can feel it when you walk in the room. We have really turned a corner in so many areas. ... (Dispatchers) are proud of what they’re doing, they’re proud of how they’re doing it.”
Mansfield said his first imperative was getting the center fully staffed, and despite occasional turnover, he said it’s nearly where he wants it to be. He credited the center’s employees with their attitudes and professionalism in creating a better workplace. He noted that Kingery, a rare outside hire, has brought a new perspective to her leadership role.
“She has some really strong attributes and qualities that will make us a better team,” he said. “She’s already shared some things that she’s seen somewhere else that we could do better here.”
For Kingery, every day is a constant challenge to stay positive.
“It’s a thankless job,” she said. “People don’t call 911 to tell you how good of a day they’re having. You have to understand that you’re truly helping. Your role is very important.”
While Mansfield is pleased with the strides the center has made with internal morale and service levels, plenty of challenges remain. County officials have pointed to a 40 percent reduction in inquiries filed by user agencies last year, but critics of the center — including Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes — maintain that’s because some departments have just become reluctant to file inquiries that don’t lead to solutions.
Meanwhile, the county faces budget disputes with the 30 or so first response agencies that partner with it for service. While the center’s partners have complained about rising user fees, Mansfield said that’s because the county is finally enforcing an equitable funding structure.
“We have to start doing this, because we didn’t do it before,” he said. “It’s a lot of money, and it seems like the rates are always going up. That’s because for so many years they never made an increase in the rates and the county just ate the cost. It’s not the county’s responsibility to pay for that, it’s all the users.”
On Wednesday, the budget subcommittee of the governance group that has signed onto the county’s 911 services met with Mansfield to talk about the 2020 budget. He called the meeting “productive,” noting that the most contentious item was the county’s proposal to invest more in the repair and replacement of aging equipment. He feels the upgrades are necessary, while some users are wary of seeing their fees climb higher.
“There’s never enough to go around,” he said. “It’s never an easy thing to go through — who’s paying for it and what’s the most fair and equitable way to do that.”
Amid the current budget discussion, Mansfield is warning of long-term infrastructure costs that will be even more daunting. Meanwhile, the financial worries are backdropped by talk of moving the county’s 911 operations into a merger with Thurston 911 Communications, also known as TCOMM. Lewis County has formally requested a feasibility study to explore the issue.
Mansfield admitted the long-term uncertainty of whether 911 will even remain under Lewis County’s roof has made discussions like staffing and budgeting more difficult. But he said his role is to make the center as good as it can be under the present circumstances.
“My 911 center will not be the reason that they leave, because the service is something they can all be proud of,” he said. “If you’re going to roll down the road to Thurston County, I hope it saves you some money because there’s no other reason to go. You’re not going to get a better service, and you’re going to lose some things along the way. … I feel very confident that when we answer all the questions we’re still going to be here.”