Thompson: current system doesn't address rural location
County fire chiefs held two separate meetings on the evening of Sept. 9 to discuss their current 911 dispatch system.
At 6:30 p.m., County Judge Robert Newsom and county commissioners met with Station 20 (County) Chief and emergency management coordinator Andy Endsley as well as representatives from Stations 1 (Sulphur Bluff), 2 (Como), 3 (North Hopkins/ South Sulphur), 7 (Pickton-Pine Forest), 9 (Saltillo), 11 (Cumby), 14 (Tira), and 15 (Dike).
Also at 6:30 p.m., Pickton-Pine Forest Chief Trey Thompson hosted a meeting at the Pine Forest substation with representatives from Stations 12 (Brinker), 13 (Miller Grove) and 17 (Arbala).
Endsley stated the reason for meeting was “because we haven’t had a meeting since COVID.” Thompson stated the reason for meeting was “we already had a meeting scheduled at this time.”
Endlsey began the meeting by announcing that due to funding provided by the CARES Act, the county will be able to purchase 49 air cylinders for the volunteer fire departments. This will account for four air cylinders per VFD, Endsley said.
“That’s great news, we’re very excited to announce that,” Endsley said. The CARES Act funds will also purchase an extractor-dryer, which will be kept at Station 20 for VFDs to use.
“Some other chiefs who are not here tonight have had issues with our dispatch protocols,” Endsley said. “We all have problems, we’re all human.”
“We want to make sure y’all are all comfortable with the dispatch protocols,” Endsley said to those assembled.
Endsley noted that he had checked the protocols with the Ark-Tex Council of Governments, who manages Hopkins County’s protocols as well as the other counties in their region.
“They check [protocols] yearly,” Endsley said. “It’s passed through court and it can’t be changed unless it goes back through court. You can’t do your own freelancing.”
Saltillo chief John Brian Beadle noted VFDs could request other VFDs for assistance, and Endsley said that was “exactly correct.”
“There’s a lot of moving parts in the queue,” Endsley stated. “You really have to think about that. It’s not just the VFD response, it’s the whole county. The Sheriff is over the dispatch, EMS is over the call whether it’s in the city or in the county.”
“Fire is a small item on a long list for dispatch,” Sheriff Lewis Tatum agreed. “That thing’s like a beehive in there.”
Chief Deputy Tanner Crump stated that HCSO dispatch takes over 200,000 calls a year.
“We believe this system we have is the best for everyone,” Endsley said. “It should take a lot of the human error side of it out of it.”
The system is not without its flaws, VFD chiefs said. Dike Chief AG Sandifer noted it was sometimes difficult as “I’m way up north and I don’t know who’s coming.”
“You have to remember, they’re [dispatch] taking multiple calls at once and it can be difficult for them to hear,” communications supervisor David Ray stated.
Newsom stated that the court and HCSO are looking into a GPS system for fire vehicles, so dispatch could see where firefighters are at any given time.
“That’s a great example, you don’t want your guy left behind if help is right around the corner,” Endsley said. Commissioner Pct. I Mickey Barker suggested maybe this could come in the form of an app for firefighters’ phones.
“It would really be good, it would be nice to see everyone come online,” Newsom added.
Ultimately, said Sandifer, he believes Hopkins County VFDs are blessed with what they have.
“The younger generations does not understand what the fire department started years ago. We didn’t have nothing and the county furnished us nothing,” Sandifer said. “Now you [the county] furnish the insurance on our trucks, our gas, the dispatch, radios… it’s come a long way. The new generations work in the big cities and get all this brand new equipment and think that’s what the volunteers need. The county can’t provide that. You move to the country and you’ve got to survive. You can’t maintain the whole big deal.”
Endsley told the News-Telegram he thought the meeting was “very productive.”
“I like to know what I’m getting into when I call someone,” Thompson said. “What equipment is coming, who’s all coming.”
Chiefs Thompson, Carl Nix (Brinker), Brian Fairchild (Arbala) and Captain Ray Sparks (Miller Grove) gathered spreadsheets that detailed exactly what county stations have what firefighting equipment, in addition to the exact area covered by each department.
“This is our countywide protocol, and this is our only protocol we have. Primary response is station 20,” Thompson said.
“The only one responsible to go [to a fire] is station 20,” Nix confirmed.
Nix said a concern among the group was that the five mile radius accessible by each volunteer department as mandated by law left out several communities, including Flora, Shirley, Nelta, Mahoney, and Reilly Springs, to name a few.
“It’s a safety issue, it’s got to be changed,” Fairchild said.
The group said they worried the protocols did not comprehensively address how spread out the county is.
“At any moment on a first alarm, Station 20 could be on a call anywhere,” Fairchild said. “It’s fine, we couldn’t replace them, but at that time they’re not available.”
From the western county line abutting with Hunt County to the eastern county line abutting with Franklin County is approximately 33 linear miles, and from the northern county line abutting with Delta County to the southern county line abutting with Rains/Wood County is approximately 28 linear miles. This makes for a total area of 793 square miles.
For example, Fairchild noted, if Station 20 was on response in Sulphur Bluff and was called to a fire in Pickton-Pine forest, it might take them a full 30 minutes to arrive there.
“And that’s going 65 on the highway,” Sparks added.
“If you can only run five square miles, we’d need four more just to cover us,” Nix said. “The county fire department [Station 20] is great, but their job should be manpower.”
The group also reviewed call for service types.
“All we want is to get toned out and make the calls,” Fairchild told the News-Telegram.