Ferry police fight for dispatchers

MARTINS FERRY Police Department, like any other police department, is a vital part of its community. But there is one thing that sets it apart from all the rest, its dispatchers.

Ferry is one of the few communities in Belmont County that still has police dispatchers but is also one of the biggest cities in Belmont County with a call volume of 9,060 in 2013. That was more than the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office which had 9,002. In 2013, the Martins Ferry Police Department had the most calls. Currently, it has three full-time dispatchers and eight part-time dispatchers.

In the last several weeks, Martins Ferry council has discussed the city’s financial situation, and one of the possible way to save money is to do away with the police dispatchers and switch to the 911 call center as well as the possibility of doing away with part-time officers.

“I know that the dispatchers and part-time officers in the police department are paid out of the general fund. This group of people sitting next to me and behind me are without a doubt the best group of people that have ever been down at the police department,” said Martins Ferry Police Chief John McFarland in reference to the several officers that accompanied him to the finance committee meeting. “The effort they put into their jobs goes above and beyond. I also know the first line of cuts are going to comes towards us.”

The reason that the dispatchers were on the list of cuts is due to the fact that the police department is paid out of the general fund. While switching to the call center would save some money, it would hurt the city in multiple ways. Many, if not all, of the Martins Ferry police officers agree that this would be the worst thing to happen to this city.

“In my terms on council before becoming mayor, we fought to keep the dispatchers due to the amount of calls and for the safety of our residents,” said Martins Ferry Mayor Paul Riethmiller. “Our dispatchers know the streets and I feel that they are vital and we can make cuts in other areas that does not include the safety of our residents. The police department does an outstanding job and we are the largest city in Belmont County and I don’t want to see them go. As the mayor, the safety of the citizens is my number one priority.”

Full-time Martins Ferry Patrolman Rob Duncan, who also accompanied McFarland to the finance meeting, spoke on behalf of the dispatchers and how vital they are to the Martins Ferry Police Department. In his statement, he spoke of an incident that recently happened one night on his shift.

“On the issue about the dispatchers and the part-time officers, I recently went on a call at a local establishment and there was a fight inside. With central dispatch, it doesn’t work the same way as it works with my dispatch. What you out there during these daylight hours is not what you see when you are sleeping,” Duncan stated. “There are things going on that keep those people from going to your yard, to your front door, now if I am in the middle of a call, am I going to be talking to a dispatcher that I have their undivided attention or am I going to be talking to a dispatcher that is running a plate for Powhatan and dispatching a call to Bellaire or to someone who has chest pains in Barnesville. Do I have the confidence that they are paying attention to what I need?”

Not having a dispatcher’s undivided attention is not the only major concern for the officers. They are concerned for the other multiple changes that would take place as a result of not having their own dispatchers. Those changes include the city building would be locked at 3 p.m. unlike now the city building is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Officers would have to stop patrolling and come to the station if a citizen would need fill out a report.

“It’s convenient to have someone on station 24 hours a day, seven days a week to handle walk on complaints because a lot of those are civil matters or does not require police action,” said Martins Ferry Patrolman John Holmes. “Calling an officer in to talk to someone will take an officer off of the streets and more time out of his or her shift.”

According to McFarland, the dispatchers know the streets in Ferry, as well as the people, getting rid of them would end all of the personal contact that the Martins Ferry Police Department has with its citizens. Some citizens even go as far as to do custody exchanges at the police department, which are monitored by the dispatchers, so that there is not an issue with the parents involving the kids.

“I believe we get a better service from our local dispatchers. Our officers feel more confident that they will get answered when they call dispatch and receive the correct information when they need it. Officers do not have to wait to get answered due to a fire or squad call like central dispatch,” said Patrolman Tim Starkey. “In my opinion 911 does a better job with fire and EMS then they do police officers. If 911 would take over our dispatch they would have to hire more people to handle our call volume. And the service they provide would not match what we have now. Our dispatchers do more now than 911 would ever be able or willing to do.”

“It would not be good for the city of Martins Ferry. The police department would be locked like most of the other departments in Belmont County,” said part-time Martins Ferry Police Officer Keven Yates, who has worked at several other of these stations that has done away with dispatchers. “The dispatchers in Martins Ferry helps the officers investigate some of the crimes that take place.”

While cuts are looming over the city and the police department, the Fraternal of Police (FOP) has made a decision to forfeit its compensatory time pay this March.

According to FOP President Sgt. Bob Walton, every year in March, the city would pay out comp time to officers that wanted it but this year, the members of the FOP have forfeited this additional pay in hopes to keep the dispatchers.

“Our dispatchers knows the ins and outs of our city and procedures,” said K-9 handler Chad Kuhn. “We would take a step backwards if we went to county.”

Van Dyne may be reached at kvandyne@timesleaderonline.com