Belmont County 911 operations outlined

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Brian Minder, acting director of Belmont County 911, delivered a presentation at the commissioners’ office Wednesday, wrapping up a series of events marking County Government Month. The heads of several different county departments spoke about their duties through April.

“911’s been in operation since 1997, 16 years now,” he said, noting that he has worked at the department since its opening when he started as a dispatcher.

He gave a brief description of the process of forming the department and 911 board, and establishing the building.

Currently their center dispatches for 24 fire departments and 13 law enforcement agencies.

“It’s kind of a big role for everyone in the county to all be at one center,” he said, adding that when the department was initiated, six public safety answering points were established in Bellaire, Bridgeport, Barnesville, Shadyside, Martins Ferry and St. Clairsville. However, due to budget cuts in the villages or cities, today only two remain. The Barnesville and Bridgeport sites operate part time.

The staff includes the director, administrative assistant, a supervisor, 12 full-time dispatchers and six part-time dispatchers. Three dispatchers are on constant duty. An increase has necessitated added employees. Along with law and fire departments, they are also responsible for dispatching for probation, game warden, county coroner, Department of Job and Family Services after hours for issues involving children and adults, and the county EMA.

“Our dispatchers are very professional, very well-trained dispatchers,” he said, adding that every two years they receive continuing education in law, fire, and medical call taking, as well as specialized incidents such as active shooter incidents and CPR.

“We provide a centralized answering service for emergencies for anyone in Belmont County,” he said, except Martins Ferry and St. Clairsville, which still uses their own dispatching units.

His department is also responsible for rural house numbering of any structure outside of a city or village limit. This process includes department members measuring the area and assigning GPS coordinates.

Minder pointed out the benefits 911 has provided to the county. He noted the years prior to the department when individual departments and emergency personnel received the calls.

“This gives us a single, centralized place to answer emergency calls and to account for everyone who is responding to those calls,” he said, noting the advantages of accountability for calls, dispatchers and units available to respond. “It allows us to have better coordination and organization for large-scale incidents. Whether it be flooding, fires, severe weather destruction, we can coordinate the incident at one place and one time.”

Recent additions to enhance the service include mapping software provided by the commissioners to fire and law enforcement vehicles and stations. Minder said these should help in response time and to quickly find directions in case of mutual aid.

The department also participates in City Watch, allowing 911 to call residents and alert them to issues such as flooding, weather alerts, missing persons and safety issues. The program uses home phone numbers. Residents wishing to be notified on cellular phones or by text should visit the 911 Web site and sign up.

The department is also engaged in a complete radio system upgrade. It is funded by a levy.

Minder added that the department has been able to generate $2 million in grant funds during the past three to four years toward replacing radio equipment.

In the future, Minder noted such plans as inter-operable radio systems to enable communications across the state. They also intend for people to be able to contact 911 via text within two years.

Another challenge for 911 is the prevalence of cellular phones. About 70-75 percent of calls come from cellular phones, which offers a challenge in locating callers.

“We have a 300-meter range that could be in when you dial from a cell phone and you show up on our map. In a rural setting, we can pretty much guess where you are, but in a densely-populated area…300 meters is a lot to cover if someone calls in an emergency.”

He underlined the necessity of using 911 only for emergencies. Other calls tie up resources which could go to residents in need.

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