Lies led to deputy’s dismissal

Editor's note: To hear the 911 calls mentioned in this story, click on the audio link. One 911 call audio file was altered to remove the name of the sexual assault victim who made the call.

Recently fired Island County Deputy Jay Wallace is claiming his failure to properly respond to a 911 call was partly due to ill-trained emergency dispatchers.

The man in charge of those dispatchers begs to disagree. Strongly.

“Our people are very professional, very proud of what they do and extremely caring,” said I-COM Director Tom Shaughnessy. “I’m very satisfied with their performance in this situation.”

Wallace, a candidate for county sheriff, has spoken out since he was terminated about the 911 incident in early February where a woman was held captive and assaulted in Freeland despite two 911 calls.

The woman later escaped, and Wallace was fired April 10 for not returning to the home after the woman made her second 911 call.

In his first statement to the press last week, and during a later interview, he claimed 911 dispatchers were inadequately trained. He said he was not given enough information about the 911 call to determine whether the call was a mistake or a prank.

Shaughnessy detailed his department’s protocol when a 911 call is received at I-COM’s communications center in Oak Harbor:

• A dispatcher takes the call.

• The call is documented and,

• The call is dispatched to the corresponding agency — fire, emergency medical responders, police or sheriff’s department.

“It is then up to those agencies how they deal with that 911 call,” Shaughnessy added.

“That’s the deputy’s job, to physically check and determine why the call was made,” Shaughnessy noted. “Frankly, this is a deputy-related situation, not a dispatcher-related one.”

He noted that of the four dispatchers involved, two have four year’s experience and one had seven years. Kelly Elder — who heard former deputy Wallace tell her on the night in question that “Uh, you know, there’s no problem” — is senior to all the 20 dispatchers on the schedule.

Wallace said he was advised the first two calls were “warm line calls” and that he wasn’t given all the information he needed to do his job, including a voice in the background saying “I’ll f--- you up” that could be heard on the 911 tape prior to the dispatcher picking up the call.

A new recorder mechanism had been installed at the 911 communications center in Oak Harbor, but the ability of the dispatcher to hear those initial sounds didn’t exist that night.

A “warm line” refers to a previously connected telephone that can only be used to call 911 or “0” to restore phone service. That gives 911 dispatchers the address but no ability to call back.

Following an extensive in-house review by I-COM’s board of directors of the 911 transcripts, no disciplinary action against the dispatchers was taken.

“They did nothing wrong,” Shaughnessy said. “They gave Mr. Wallace all the information they had at the time.”

Island County’s emergency service communications center requires new dispatchers have a wide variety of skills and undergo extensive testing.

“Less than 50 percent make it through the whole process,” Shaughnessy said.

Even before they’re hired, I-COM requires a rigid battery of tests to determine someone’s qualifications for this demanding job:

• All applicants must first spend an hour in the communications center observing what a dispatcher does.

• A keyboarding test requires a minimum 45 words per minute typing skill with an 85 percent accuracy level.

• Next is a timed test to ascertain an applicant’s memory and note taking skills.

• Another 25-minute quiz measures personality in terms of emotional intensity, intuition, recognition motivation, sensitivity, assertiveness, trust and level of exaggeration. There are no right or wrong answers on this one.

• Three more tests cover problem-solving ability, how an applicant functions despite distracting outside stimuli and individual risk related to theft, hostility and drug use — low, moderate or high.

I-COM conducts extensive background checks, drug screening, credit and psychological evaluations. Finally, there is an oral interview by the director.

“From the day they’re hired to the day they are added to the work schedule takes from six months to a year,” Shaughnessy said.

Dispatchers are paid between $16.40 to $19.52 per hour. And because they are a relatively small group, everyone is cross-trained.

“Unlike big-city operations, there are no specialists,” Shaughnessy said. “And they are very good at their work.”

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