Panic alarms set off bells at county

It seemed like a good idea. Install panic alarm buttons in hot spots of Island County administration buildings, to protect workers from irate members of the public.

Monday morning the board of commissioners approved a $9,000 contract for the installation of 14 new or additional “duress code stations” in points of high customer contact such as courtrooms and the offices of the prosecutor, county clerk, sheriff, assessor, auditor and treasurer.

County Treasure Linda Riffe said there has been an increase in uncivil behavior in the last year, with a lot of “angry folks” unhappy with their tax bills. It can be a frightening situation for the clerks who work the front counter.

“You don’t know when they’re going to trip,” Riffe said.

Being able to discreetly push a button and know help is on the way would be an asset for the frontline workers.

Tom Baenen, Island County assessor, recalls three or four times in 10 years when he has had to call the Sheriff’s Office to assist with an irate customer.

“People can get heated and out of control,” he said.

Some offices already have panic buttons, such as the Court Commissioner’s office, both judges in their courtrooms, the court lobby the prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s reception area.

The additional panic buttons seemed like a good idea when former county jail administrator J.D. Burns and the county safety committee suggested it to the commissioners last year. It was not feasible in that budget, so it was included in the maintenance budget for this year.

But, new jail administrator Dee Dennis said the system wouldn’t work, for several reasons. The jail does not have the staff to respond to security calls from other offices, union corrections officers are not contracted to perform security detail, and calls to the jail would have to be routed to 911 and answered by the Coupeville Town Marshal’s office, which has jurisdiction over the county buildings.

“It’s a waste of time to send the calls to the jail,” Dennis said.

He said the jail will respond to calls from the Law and Justice Center.

After discussions with Dennis and Sheriff Mike Hawley Monday afternoon, the commissioners agreed to put the panic buttons contract on hold.

Commissioner Mac McDowell said they agreed with the sheriff’s issues with the panic buttons, and will revisit the plan.

McDowell noted that in the last three months they have budgeted to have a switching system added to the county phone lines which would allow outgoing 911 calls to show the actual point of origin, rather than a general county complex number. That way, operators at dispatch will know exactly where to send officers.

“911 is by far the faster means,” McDowell said.

When contacted Tuesday, Riffe was surprised to hear of the commissioners’ decision, as she thought the calls would go to the Marshal’s office. Regardless of who responds, one issue remains.

“There is a liability (issue) if someone gets hurt,” she said.

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