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Politics part of 911 holdouts, chief says

By Chris Paschenko 340-2442

Political motivations are handcuffing a state-of-the-art communications center responsible for dispatching all 911 calls countywide, a retiring police chief told the Rotary Club of Decatur on Monday.

Decatur Police Chief Joel Gilliam, who is retiring Jan. 31, reflected on challenges the city's next top cop will face.

Rotary member Jack Dougherty introduced Gilliam to the audience of more than 100, which included four Tuskegee Airmen as honored guests.

Gilliam said interoperability — the ability of different agencies to communicate via a two-way radio during mutual-aid emergencies — is a vital security link for the nation.

"The war on terrorism is a war we do not have an option to lose," Gilliam said. "The police and fire departments are in the frontlines of this war, and without equipment to do the job we will lose."

The 911 center gives Decatur police, fire and ambulance crews the ability to use their radios to talk with one another directly without having their transmissions copied through a dispatcher.

But if all three agencies were standing across the street from sheriff's deputies, Hartselle, Somerville, Falkville or state police, they would all need megaphones.

"What will it take for us to be able to talk to the sheriff's department or state police? Money," Gilliam said. "But other departments in the county won't join (the 911 center). It's political. It's dangerous and wasteful not to use it, and it's less expensive to be on that system."

Gordon Neihardt, manager of Morgan's 911 center, said Hartselle police have expressed an interest in using the 911 center if a communications tower is built to improve their radio signal.

Hartselle Police Chief Ron Puckett said the improvement would allow interoperability for his department, but he said he would need to keep his dispatchers.

"For the police department and for the city, it's not politics for us," Puckett said. "It's a matter of finances. Our dispatchers in Hartselle do so much more than dispatch. ... They take reports and greet the public, check on inmates and they're part of the family."

Although Gov. Bob Riley announced in May that Alabama tops the nation in federal homeland security grants for technology and equipment improvements in rural communities and small towns, the grants only go so far.

"Because we're heavily dependent on funding from outside sources, it might be months down the road before we get funding for a radio tower," Puckett said.

Attempts to reach Morgan Sheriff Greg Bartlett on Monday for comment were unsuccessful. Bartlett said in 2005, however, that one reason he wants to keep his dispatchers is that, because he is an elected official, his dispatchers are a direct reflection on him.

"If my office is responsible for answering calls efficiently and information is messed up, I answer for it," Bartlett said. "If I get sued over it, it's because of something I had to do with, not what somebody else did."

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