Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

TOP STORY >> County officials butting heads over response

Leader staff writer

The tornado that hit the Searcy area last month as a result of Hurricane Rita was the first disaster that has struck White County since the quorum court took the dispatch center and the 911 system away from the sheriff and put it under the county judge and the Office of Emergency Services.

And few, especially White County Sheriff Pat Garrett, are pleased with how it was handled.
Garrett said the dispatch center sent him to a home on Hwy. 36 that had been destroyed. Then, for reasons unclear to him, they sent all his deputies there.

White County Judge Bob Parish said when he arrived with his road foreman to see about clearing trees off the road, Hwy. 36 was “lit up like Las Vegas” from all the patrol cars that were blocking the road.
Parish said he didn’t know why they were all there, but they were hindering his work.
Garrett said from his position, which he later realized was the middle of the nine-mile swathe cut by the storm, he sent deputies out in both directions, to search for the beginning and end, and to assist any victims they encountered.

But never during the four- and-a-half hours that he was out did anyone from the Office of Emergency Services call him to see how they could assist him or his deputies.

Randall Storey, a former Searcy police officer Parish hired as OES director about a year ago, was in Galveston, Texas, helping his wife’s grandparents escape the storm, Parish said.

Tamara Jenkins, the deputy director, was in the field with emergency workers, Garrett said. And that left no one in charge at the dispatch center to co-ordinate the emergency response, no one to even tell emergency workers whether they had checked every dwelling that had been hit. When the dispatchers were worked for him, Maj. Kyle Stokes was always on hand during tornadoes to do just that, the sheriff said.
Their squabbles have been fodder for local newspapers almost from the beginning. Since he fought against the dispatch center being taken away almost two years ago, Garrett is reluctant to say anything that would make it appear he is “whining” about how the dispatch center is operated.

He praised the work of the dispatchers. But he says a lack of coordination between the people in the field and those in the dispatch center the night of the tornado meant county residents didn’t receive the quality of service they have a right to expect.

Parish says he takes responsibility for the OES director being out of town when the storm hit.
He gave Storey permission to go to Texas to take care of his family. No one knew White County would be hit, he said.

But he says the dispatch center is better now than it was under Garrett. The dispatchers stay longer, so they are better trained.

“Pat is upset because he didn’t have a command station. All he had to do was call 911,” Parish said.
“It’s working. They’re doing a great job and they’re going to get better.” Parish also praises Storey for working with first responders from industry, fire departments, police departments and schools all over the county to create an emergency-response plan that will be a model for others in the state.
“Pat is not involved and he should be,” Parish said.

Jenkins, the deputy OES director, says she won’t point fingers.
“It’s not that the sheriff didn’t do a good job or we didn’t do a good job,” Jenkins said. “We just need to work together as a team.

“The OES is there for support. We’re there. Our door is open.”
The sheriff disagrees.

“When they took the dispatch center away from me they made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with me,” he said.