EMA, 911 offices have been merged in other Alabama counties

Published 10:40 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Pike County Commission is considering a merger of the EMA and 911 offices ahead of the next fiscal year, but Pike would not be the first county to do so.

Chris Dozier, Pike County 911 director, said he and interim EMA Director Herb Reeves have contacted numerous other counties that have combined the two agencies in some form or fashion and have specifically modeled their proposal after Chambers County.

“They have one board for EMA and 911 and have doing it since the 90s, so it definitely works for them and that’s why they’ve been doing it this way for so long,” Dozier said.

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Donnie Smith, EMA and 911 director for Chambers County, explained how his organization works and why it is a benefit in that county.

“The programs work really well together,” Smith said. “They go hand-in-hand.”

One of the issues that Pike County officials will need to keep in mind is rules regarding funding of the two entities, Smith said.

“State statutory guidelines require to keep the funding separate,” Smith said. “The revenue sources are different. We keep them separate and that has always passed muster with state examiners. We feel we are saving the people of Chambers County money by not duplicating buildings, people and computer systems.”

And although EMA and 911 split the costs for personnel, Smith said there has been no issue getting Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) to assist in reimbursing portions of the salaries.

“911 invoices EMA on a monthly basis for those items,” Smith said. “Those expenses on the EMA side are in turn reported under EMPG and sent upstream to the state EMA and federal dollars allocated for that.”

Commissioner Charlie Harris, District 5, raised concerns Monday after he spoke with officials from other counties that had merged the two offices.

“You have to have two boards and two audits,” Harris said.

Chambers County, however, works under one combined board for both offices. And although there are two audits, Dozier said the two entities would be audited separately just as they are now and the county would not need to be involved in the 911 audit, which is conducted every two years.

In addition to cost-sharing, Smith said there is an advantage to information sharing when the offices are combined.

“There are definitely advantages in regards to situational awareness,” Smith said. “It helps to keep a pulse on things going around the county. We can see where damage reports are coming in, it’s instantaneous. I don’t have to worry about calling someone else and finding out like I would if we were not consolidated or space-sharing. Having the 911 staff and EMA staff cross-trained and having more resources you can bring to bear when you need them in a time of emergency has always been an asset.”

Mike Melton, EMA and 911 director for Colbert County, said the merger there has also been for the best, although he is the only employee shared by the two offices.

“It opens up a whole lot of communication between the emergency management side and 911 side,” Melton said. “There’s a deputy director on both sides. 911 pays for all 911 bills and they pay the county part of my salary; I’m treated like contract work for 911 board. The county commission pays my benefit package, retirement – all of that is calculated into the deal.”

In Colbert County’s case, the EMA still falls directly under the county commission while 911 is under a 911 board. The county also didn’t need to consider merging office space as both agencies were already housed in the bottom of the Colbert County Courthouse.

In Coffee County, the EMA and 911 offices remain separate, but the commission did create an EMA Board to oversee Director James Brown.

“We have an EMA board that’s comprised of four mayors and a county commissioner,” Brown said. “I think it works really good for Coffee Count. It shows we work for everybody, not just the county commission. It is a good thing to show interoperability between the organizations; it brings us into a common operating picture.”

Brown said one advantage of an EMA Board is getting funding from multiple sources.

“That also helps, because we can split the costs between everybody; even though costs are minimal, it does help to split that up between everybody,” Brown said. “At the beginning of every fiscal year, I invoice everyone for their portion based off of population. A place like Kinston pays a lot less than somewhere like Enterprise, which is fair. This gives everybody skin in the game.”

Brown and other EMA officials around the state urged that no one model fits every county.

“Every county has to kind of decide for themselves what works best for them,” Brown said.

Dozier and Reeves are meeting with their stakeholders group this week to discuss the future of the merger.