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911 dispatchers face discipline, firing for 'inappropriate' instant-messaging

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CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Red Bank Chief Mark Mathews says his own firefighters don't have the state-of-the-art instant messaging system that dispatchers enjoy at Hamilton County's 911 Communications Center.

"But they know what you can and can't put in our department's email," he says. "As far as being warned, they've been verbally warned what can happen if these issues occur."

Mathews is a member of the 911 center's Board of Directors. But he tells Eyewitness News that he was unaware of the specifics behind allegations that at least 11 Hamilton County 911 'telecommunicators' have misused the message system.

"But I sure want to know," he says.

The Center's Executive Director, John Stuermer, will confirm only that he's investigating whether dispatchers broke rules that were spelled out clearly in their Code of Conduct.

"I won't say which rules or how," Stuermer tells Eyewitness News in a telephone interview. "It's not appropriate until we finish the disciplinary hearings."

Stuermer will not deny reports that at least one, and possibly more dispatchers, already have been fired.

Not knowing the specifics unnerves Stacey Stockton, General Manager for Prestige, Inc., an auto-body specialist.

"Our people know what you can and can't put in a company email," Stockton says.  "Anything that would be inappropriate to say in a normal conversation, anything racial or sexual, is likely to get you fired."

Chief Mathews says Red Bank has no written policy governing use of office email or social media by city employees, but using the message system to talk about 'after-work' plans would be 'borderline.'

"Slander would cross the line," he says. "I don't put up with slandering anybody, whether it's verbal, email, or whatever."

Channel 3 believes the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Tennessee's Open Records law guarantee your right to know how government employees are using equipment bought with your tax dollars.

Accordingly, Eyewitness News has petitioned the Hamilton County 911 Communications District to
review the instant messages in question, the results of the internal investigation, and transcripts of any and all disciplinary proceedings involving 911 employees.

An assistant confirmed that Operations Manager Jeff Carney received the FOIA request Tuesday afternoon, but would not review it until Wednesday.

Tennessee law allows public agencies seven days to respond.

"The (disciplinary) hearings should wrap up this week," Stuermer says. "We can answer your questions then."

"There reaches a certain point in time when everybody is responsible for their own actions," Chief Mathews says.

"I just got back from a training conference in Indianapolis, and the big talk during the breaks is what to do about social media. Seems like everybody's getting in trouble for posting something on Facebook."

The 'instant message' system allows dispatchers to multi-task; contacting co-workers or a supervisor for help without having to interrupt or break contact with a caller in distress.

Informed of the internal investigation, Stacey Stockton raises concerns about distraction.

"When I dial 911, hopefully that (dispatcher) is taking care of business," Stockton says.  "Not their own business, but the business of their profession. If they're not, it's scary."

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