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Under new director, dispatch center turns fortunes around

They love it now that the plan has come together.

After three years of controversy, a half-dozen directors, 21 different board members, low employee morale, high turnover and running long on overtime while short of staffing, the Emergency Communications Centers that serves Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia is a better place to be.

Current board members and dispatchers alike say the improvement is Director Larry “Sonny” Saxton’s doing.

Several dispatchers, who agreed to discuss the changes provided their names not be published, gave Saxton kudos.

“Sonny has had his hands full in his first year, and that’s putting it lightly,” said one dispatcher who was on staff during darker days. “He inherited a regional 911 center that had low staffing and moral. We so desperately needed a leader that could guide us in the right direction. We needed an advocate, someone who could communicate to the board what we need but more importantly what we do. We have found that in Sonny.”

Members of the communication center’s board of directors profusely praised Saxton at their August meeting. Those who had been on the board through controversial times repeated the praise in conversations and emails afterward.

“I believe the cultural shift and growth we are experiencing under Director Saxton’s leadership is the direct result of hiring a well-qualified and rounded leader who is familiar with the complexities of an emergency communication center and its operations,” said Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney.

Brackney said Saxton’s “skills, knowledge, abilities and temperament, coupled with a vision for the center” is moving the center toward “excellence.”

“[His] interpersonal skills and understanding of the board’s governance structure and responsibilities have made the transitions much smoother,” she said.

“He has a way of listening to what people are saying. Not just standing there and nodding his head, but really listening,” said UVa Police Chief Timothy J. Longo, one of the newest members of the board. “His tone, his way of doing things, is the right leadership style to change a [workplace] culture.”

Albemarle County Police Chief Ron Lantz, who with Brackney and Albemarle County Fire Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston makes up the other veteran board members, agreed with Brackney.

“When Sonny took over it was with significant staffing shortages and low morale. Since he has been director, he has the center at near full-authorized strength and has improved morale tremendously,” Lantz said. “I attribute this to his knowledge, experience, and his commitment to being transparent with internal and external customers.”

Information provided to the board at its Aug. 18 meeting shows that the center’s performance has improved as has employee morale.

Dispatchers were able to answer nearly 91% of 911 emergency calls in less than 10 seconds in June compared to about 86% in July 2019. More than 98% of calls were answered within 15 seconds, compared to about 96% the previous year.

The center hired one of its own employees to become its training manager and improve ongoing training for existing employees as well as training for new employees.

The 20-year-old computer workstations and dispatch consoles have been replaced and upgraded, making the working conditions easier, dispatchers say.

Saxton, who is credited for efficiency, humility and the ability to bring people together for a cause, said the improvements were possible because others supported the effort.

“I’m the guy who talks about transparency and am very serious about it. We look at what we’re doing, at our metrics, how we serve the community and we talk about it daily, weekly and monthly,” he said.

“I believe that relationships matter and you have to put the work in,” he said. “With so many different stakeholders involved in the center, it takes a while to get to know them. The communications officers and staff have been very warm and welcoming. They all offered to be supportive and put the hard work in.”

There was a lot of work to be done.

In spring of 2017, faced with the retirement of the center’s 21-year veteran director Tom Hanson, the center’s board sought a replacement. It conducted three searches between 2017 and 2018 and saw one candidate turn down the job, a second search end without a candidate and the third wrap up with a new hire.

The third time was not the charm.

In August 2018, the board hired Barry Neulen, then director of field operating activity for the U.S. Department of Defense in Arlington, to be full-time director. He inherited a staff that was nearly a dozen dispatchers short of full and deep in overtime, with some people working as many as 1,000 hours overtime during the year.

By the time he started the job in October, the board that hired him had changed. Three new members came on, including Brackney, then-University of Virginia Police Chief Tommye Sutton and Gloria Graham, then UVa associate vice president for safety and security.

There were immediate issues, from a lack of clarity in billing to each jurisdiction to proper compilation of performance metrics to communications. The new board often criticized his efforts and made Neulen the topic of several board executive sessions to discuss his performance and responsibilities.

One major point of contention was Neulen’s effort to ease overtime by hiring a contractor to supply dispatchers while training new hires. The move was to be made without a competitive bid.

The board approved the emergency procurement agreement but rescinded it a month later and set it out to bid. No company bid on the contract.

Meanwhile, dispatchers continued working overtime.

In March 2019, Neulen resigned prior to a board meeting at which his resignation was accepted. A recent addition to the board, UVa representative Tom Berry was appointed interim director.

The loss of Neulen did not sit well with the center’s dispatchers, who came to work to find the director’s office cleaned out and empty. Many took to social media, calling Neulen “great for the center” and criticizing the board for not working with him and counseled colleagues to “dust off resumes” and look for other jobs.

In July 2019, the board hired Saxton. While he set to work, the board that hired him lost a quorum of members and brought on five new directors.

In the meantime, the board itself changed. Only four of the board’s current nine members were on the board in 2019, three were on the board in 2018 and two remain from 2017.

Longo said the current board reads from the same page.

“I’ve been pleased with the way the board works with each other,” he said. “We challenge each other on those things we don’t agree with, but it’s respectful. I think we all want the same thing and that’s what’s best for the center and the community.”

Brackney is one of those from the board’s 2018 incarnation. She said that, despite the number of changes it has gone through, the board’s direction is the same.

“Although the board has experienced significant turnover in the past year, the goals and the objectives of the board have remained steadfast: Deliver exceptional service to those in need of public safety support,” she said. “The directorship change has allowed for the realization of those goals.”

Saxton credits his coworkers and colleagues for the center’s turn around.

“It is an extremely difficult thing to be ‘up’ in a difficult job like this, but during a pandemic it can be more difficult. Keeping good morale and a positive outlook can be difficult,” he said. “Everybody has gone out of their way to be supportive and open, and that’s what’s important.”

Longo said the Saxton is the positive difference.

“He has brought hope where people had lost hope,” he said of the center’s employees. “You don’t do anything alone, but he helped shape it back into something positive. That’s an accomplishment.”


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