East Feliciana panel OKs 911 call-taking extension

The East Feliciana Parish Emergency Communications Commission and Sheriff Talmadge Bunch reached an agreement Friday to avoid a change next week on how 911 emergency calls are answered.

The board voted 4-1 to accept a six-month extension on an agreement that expired June 30 to have the Sheriff’s Office continue to answer the calls at a dispatch center at the parish jail.

Because of a dispute over how much the district pays Bunch’s office for providing call-takers, the two agencies were set to sever the relationship by Tuesday.

Last week, the commission’s board approved a tentative arrangement with its counterpart in East Baton Rouge Parish, but the Baton Rouge district later decided against entering into the agreement, East Feliciana Chairman Bill Ford announced.

The board entertained an offer from Tangipaphoa Parish’s emergency communications district to begin taking the calls Tuesday, but the majority favored continuing to operate with Bunch’s personnel.

Board member Kevin Garig, a sheriff’s deputy and volunteer firefighter, said he met with Bunch and persuaded him to sign a six-month extension agreement for the same monthly payment, $7,831.

Garig, the parish fire district’s representative on the board, said he decided to ask for the meeting over concerns that law enforcement officers and first-responders could be placed in danger if only one dispatcher was on duty to accept information from a 911 call center outside the parish.

He also said the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana requires the fire district to have two dispatchers on duty at all times.

He also said he fears a switch to another call-taking agency next week would result in chaos for a few days, but six months is enough time for the district to map plans for opening its own call center.

Board members Eddie Stewart, J.R. Rouchon and Ray Newman joined Garig in approving the extended agreement. Ford did not vote, and Mark Chelette voted against the motion.

Chelette said he agreed with Garig’s thinking about an orderly transfer, but he criticized Bunch and Newman, the sheriff’s representative on the board.

“The only thing we’ve been told is get out, and we’re getting out,” Chelette said, adding that the district’s only responsibility is call-taking.

“Everything you’re talking about is dispatching,” Chelette told Garig.

Dennis Darouse, Tangipahoa Parish’s 911 director, emphasized that his commission chairman had only responded to a request for help from East Feliciana’s director, Ben Chasteen.

Darouse said he could not speak with 100 percent certainty about his board ratifying the verbal agreement, but he said he is confident the board would offer “help if it is needed.”

He said Tangipahoa has answered 911 calls for St. Helena Parish since 911 service was established there.

Ford appointed Garig, Stewart and Chelette to a committee to work out plans for a transition to a stand-alone center next year.