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Upgrades to 911 center, employment challenges discussed at first SO town hall meeting
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Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson discusses some of the challenges his office faces such as salaries that aren’t competitive with surrounding counties during the March 2 town hall meeting. - photo by Jessica Taylor

The Dawson County Sheriff’s Office held its first town hall meeting of 2019 March 2, giving more than 20 community members the opportunity to hear updates from the office regarding the 911 center as well as the challenges the office currently faces.

Sheriff Jeff Johnson said Saturday morning that he wants to continue the town hall meetings throughout the year to keep the community informed on a regular basis.  

“If you’re looking for a perfect sheriff, look past me,” Johnson said. “If you’re looking for the perfect officers, look past us, but we’re going to try to do everything we can to the best of our ability.”

911 system to see upgrades

A number of upcoming improvements to the Dawson County 911 Dispatch Center were outlined by Director Aleisha Rucker-Wright, including plans for updates to the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system that will be up and running later this year.

Rucker-Wright said that 911 centers across the nation are currently transitioning to Next Generation 911, an internet-based system that will allow the centers to receive text messages.

Once the infrastructure for the new system is installed at the state level, Dawson County’s new CAD system will allow dispatchers to communicate more effectively with the community.

“911 is changing in a way because we’ve stepped back and realized on a national level that you’re not able to communicate with your 911 centers using ways that you typically communicate with people every day,” Rucker-Wright said. “Plus, if you’re in an incident where it’s difficult to talk to 911, you may be able to text and provide us with really important information.”

Rucker-Wright began working for the sheriff’s office in 2008 and said the current CAD system is the same system that was used 11 years ago.

“You know how technology changes in the span of 10 or 11 years,” Sheriff Jeff Johnson said. “We’ve had a lot of issues with our current CAD system. We’ve had a lot of issues, scary issues so to speak when the system goes down.”

The new system will be able to provide better information regarding addresses, tracking law enforcement and emergency services personnel and attaching valuable information to addresses such as medical conditions pertinent to responders.

The Dawson County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Jan. 17 to purchase the upgrade at a cost of $421,260.15.

The new CAD system is expected to be up and running no later than October, Rucker-Wright said.

The 911 center is also working to improve its accuracy when receiving calls from cell phones by partnering with i911, a program that provides responders with accurate, real-time locations of 911 callers.

Rucker-Wright said that many people don’t realize the limitations dispatchers face when receiving phone calls from cell phones. Unlike landlines that have an address attached to them, dispatchers often only receive coordinates from cell phone callers.

“We get the cell phone tower and then it will tell us approximately within 50 to 300 meters as to where you’re at,” Rucker-Wright said.

With i911, dispatchers can plug in the cell phone number and receive a location within 50 to 60 feet of the caller. It can also be used by sending a text message to the caller’s phone and by opening the message, the phone can share its location to the dispatch center.

Rucker-Wright also discussed the center’s partnership with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) to provide dispatchers with medical emergency dispatch training that allows dispatchers to provide instructions that will help victims until paramedics arrive.

Office dealing with high turnover rate

Johnson also discussed challenges his office currently faces, the biggest being employee turnover, with many experienced officers leaving Dawson County for higher paying positions.

Johnson said that the economy being as strong as it is hurts the sheriff’s office, because the office isn’t receiving enough applicants.

“People can make a whole lot more money in the private sector than they can in law enforcement,” Johnson said. “That hurts us.”

The salary for certified officers at the sheriff’s office is $37,000. While surrounding counties are able to increase pay for experience and training, Johnson said Dawson County is unable to increase salaries for experience.

“We may occasionally lose an officer north, but we compete with our agencies to the south- Alpharetta, Dunwoody and Forsyth County,” Johnson said. “Those are the agencies that are attracting our people. Why? Because they’re attracting them for quite a bit more money.”

The starting salary for a brand new officer with no experience is $40,425 in the city of Alpharetta and approximately $45,000 in Dunwoody, according to Johnson.

Some agencies offer recruiting bonuses as an incentive, Johnson said.

“Right off the bat the officers are realizing there’s nearly an $8,000 raise just for going to Dunwoody,” Johnson said.

The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has a starting salary of $42,657, but pay will increase to the mid-60s with experience. With Forsyth County being 10 minutes down the road, Johnson said it’s difficult to be competitive with their salaries.

“When we lose a five-year officer that’s on the street that’s already been exposed to all these different things and know what they’re doing, now we’re having to back up. Now we’re having to put a new body in a car so we’re having to retrain. We’re having to take time and our attention and focus off of doing what needs to be done to go back to the basics,” Johnson said.  “I know we’ll never eliminate that. We never will, but I think we can do a good job of trying to reduce it.”