Putting public safety first

Friday, October 3, 2008

I was privileged to learn from the man who was the state emergency management director for Oklahoma before, during and after the federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.

Nearly a decade ago, Tom Feuerborn moved to a Tennessee city that still holds to its small town roots so he could be close to his grandchildren but he couldn't stop being a public servant. After a stint as a planning commissioner, he was an alderman. That's how I met Tom.

He kept his priorities in order. Public safety is the chief responsibility for a municipality, he said. That duty was factored into decisions on roads, utilities, land development and such, but Tom tended police and fire budgets before other spending plans.

This week, Marshall County leaders have been examining bids for a new ambulance station in Chapel Hill. It's an important facility and the Lions Club is commended for providing the old building that's been housing ambulances and staff there.

County budgets are heavy on spending for schools. It's the nature of the beast, but the county has public safety budgets that must be maintained: Sheriff's and ambulance service budgets deserve close attention.

So do city police and fire departments, as Tom said. The men and women who serve in those positions deserve to have the equipment they need, including the right kind of radios. It's like providing armored Humvees to our soldiers in Iraq. Tom was working with his town's police chief to get radios that permit direct talk with emergency personnel in related departments.

It can be a life or death issue. It might not be as dramatic here as cops and firefighters struggling to talk on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City, but the consequences for for one person here could be just as final.

Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis is now working toward what Tom and former Lewisburg Chief Wayne Coomes wanted several years ago: Direct communications between police, firefighters EMTs and other emergency responders. Some communities try to save money by having a central dispatch center for all three. It makes dollars and sense.

Norman, Okla., is where Tom's career started. He was a street beat cop, and I think he'd enjoy my retelling and updating a story that Jay Leo of NBC's Tonight Show would call "Stupid Criminal Tricks."

Dusty Darnell of Shelbyville pleaded guilty last spring as charged last winter with taking $3 and car keys from Elizabeth Wendell's purse at the old Bedford County Medical Center. He also pleaded guilty of stealing her Mazda, which he crashed. Sheriff's Deputy Lindsay Puckett spoke with Darnell near the crash and noticed Darnell had a cellphone with him. Darnell said he found it on the road. Through police communication channels, Puckett consulted with Shelbyville Police Officer Richard Blanton who was with Wendell. Blanton dialed Wendell's cellphone number. "The cellphone on Darnell began to ring and when ... Puckett answered ... Blanton was on the other end," according to a report in Darnell's case file that adds, "Darnell attempted to wrench the phone away from Puckett." That didn't work.

Cellphones have become so common that we've seen video of a school bus fight here and the execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But when it comes to police communications, government equipment should be used and it should be direct, versatile and reliable. A great deal of government spending has been justified as for national security. National security, the health and welfare of average citizens are justifications for policies that cut through technical, contractual and other obstacles to the goal.

And, by the way more people like Tom Feuerborn are needed on public panels.