Amid growing concerns surrounding delayed emergency response times and high dispatcher turnover, Sumner County Emergency Communications Center Director Rhonda Lea resigned unexpectedly Jan. 18.
Lea submitted her letter of resignation to County Executive Anthony Holt shortly before 8 a.m. that day - just hours before the ECC’s executive committee was scheduled to meet to discuss the findings of a new report outlining “serious allegations” made by former employees regarding potential violations of state and federal law at the facility.
“Since the day I was given the opportunity to be the director of the ECC I came to work every day determined to do my duty and serve the community,” Lea wrote. “I have done so with the best of my ability and always focused on working towards our goals in making the center the best it could be.
“I would like to say that it has been a pleasure to work with all of the great people of Sumner County however it is time to explore and seek new opportunities where my talents will be more effective.”
Jeff Wright, who served as deputy director of the center, also stepped down Friday and has accepted a job opportunity outside of Sumner County government, according to his letter of resignation.
As a result of the departures, a transition team led by Hendersonville Police Commander Paul Harbsmeier will be in charge of managing the facility until a nationwide search to find a new director is completed.
The group plans to immediately start to correct “main identified areas of failure” like training, CAD administration and employee relations, according to a transition plan presented to the ECC’s executive committee Friday.
“We have to ensure continued service without interruption of any kind,” Harbsmeier added. “It is paramount that we need to keep that operation running.
“This is a situation where failure is not an option.”
Report describes “chaotic work environment”
Opened in July 2017, the Sumner County Emergency Communications Center was created with the goal of dispatching all of the county’s police, fire and emergency personnel from one centralized location in Gallatin. Participants include the cities of Hendersonville, Gallatin, Portland, Westmoreland and Millersville as well as Sumner County.
Since the beginning, the multi-million-dollar facility has been plagued by high employee turnover, losing 30 of its 49 total dispatchers within the first 17 months, according to data presented to county officials last month. Of those departures, 27 voluntarily resigned.
As a result, the center’s executive committee voted last month to have Gallatin Human Resources Director Debbie Johnson conduct exit interviews with former employees to learn exactly why they were leaving.
The former employees Johnson spoke with described a “chaotic work environment” at the ECC where “there is no loyalty to management as they feel that management cannot be trusted,” according to a report dated Jan. 14. Those individuals also indicated that “management was inconsistent and changes in policies were constant and unpredictable.”
Accusations of a hostile or toxic work environment were also made, which include unwanted and unwelcome behaviors, abusive conduct, bullying, profanity, throwing objects, assault/battery report, rumors, rude comment, complaining and yelling, according to the report.
“It is reported that individuals file complaints or complain and are terminated within 24 hours – no discussion, no investigation – possible whistleblower violations,” Johnson also wrote. “Individuals believe that they are retaliated against for speaking up.”
In one case, a former employee stated they did not receive a 30-minute break for lunch as required by state law and that they took radios to the bathroom since there was no one on shift to relieve them.
All of those interviewed stated they felt staffing levels needed to increase and that the lack of consistent training with no uniform training or procedures manual was a “point of frustration,” according to the report.
“Feedback includes that no one left for salary or benefits,” Johnson added. “All indicate that they would not return to the county with the current management.
“No one would recommend the center as a place to work.”
Harbsmeier: ‘We are going to fix these problems’
In addition to the issues raised by former employees, first responders across the county have also expressed concerns in recent months regarding delays in response times that have been blamed on dispatching errors.
In one case involving a choking six-month-old, Hendersonville Deputy Fire Chief Mike Holt told city leaders there last month that first responders were sent to a wrong address in Gallatin instead of the correct location in the Mansker Farms subdivision. The infant eventually had to be taken by car to the hospital but was okay.
“We are going to fix these problems,” Harbsmeier told county leaders Friday. “This is a professional organization that is going to be run professionally and we’re going to make sure of that. We’re going to make sure we get a good leader and director.”
Harbsmeier added that the county’s ECC transition team also plans to contact experienced and qualified former employees in the coming weeks to see if they would be interested in returning to work at the facility. The move would eliminate a year of training per employee when compared to a new hire.
In a memorandum to all current ECC employees Friday, the executive committee expressed “sincere appreciation” for the staff and asked for them to embrace the opportunity to “improve operations, employee satisfaction and citizen service.”
“Our goal is that you have the tools and knowledge to do your job well and that you work in an environment that allows you to provide the best service you possibly can to our citizens,” the memorandum read.
Tena Lee contributed to this report.