Denise McGirt said when she heard gun shots being fired near her Maxton home, she quickly dialed 911.
McGirt thought that it was the right call — both figuratively and literally.
To her surprise, the 911 call was not answered by Maxton police, but the sheriff’s department more than 20 miles away in Lumberton.
The dispatcher who answered the telephone directed her to call the Maxton Police Department.
“They said ‘ma’am this is the sheriff’s office, if you need the Maxton police, the number is 844-5667,’” said McGirt. “She would not explain to me that we do not have 911, she just wanted me to redial.”
While Maxton officials say that call was handled improperly, they do confirm that since June calls made to 911 from Maxton have been answered by the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. The town’s budget crisis made it necessary to turn the system over to the sheriff’s office.
“We don’t handle 911 anymore, it goes to the county,” Maxton Chief Tammy Deese said. “They do direct it to us if it qualifies as a police department matter inside the city.”
According to Maxton Town Manager Angela Pitchford, the 911 service was switched to Robeson County’s E-911 as faulty equipment in the Maxton Police Department made it impossible for the town to handle emergency calls.
“The police chief at the time had no choice but to go to Robeson County’s E-911 system,” Pitchford said. “Back in June the town was not financially able to purchase the equipment needed, and that is why we have not gone back to our own 911 system as of yet.”
Several cuts have been made in the town’s police force last year in an attempt to pull Maxton from the state of near-insolvency caused by the previous mayor and town manager.
Deese said that about five calls per week are forwarded to the Maxton Police Department from the county sheriff, but more emergency calls, from locals using the department’s regular line, are fielded by the police themselves.
“Most people call on the regular, non-emergency line,” said Deese. “They always did that even when we actually answered 911.”
Maxton Mayor Sallie McLean said that those with emergencies are encouraged to call 911 rather than the Maxton Police Department’s non-emergency line, as Robeson County is better equipped to handle medical emergencies, fire, and other crises.
Deese concurred, noting that calls handled by the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department should be directed by that office to the appropriate law enforcement or emergency response agency.
“They are responsible for calling us,” Deese said. “We don’t want our callers having to call us, as something may happen in the time that they try to redial and we would never know.”
Emergency calls that qualify as police matters are still delegated by Robeson County to the Maxton Police Department, with other emergencies handled by the county. Callers themselves should not be told to simply call the police.
“If they just refer them to the Maxton Police Department, they definitely aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do,” McLean said.
The Robeson County Sheriff’s Department was not available for comment.
Pitchford said that reinstating a 911 response service in Maxton is among the town’s priorities, but in the meantime Maxton is committed to ensuring the effectiveness of the current system.
“If any citizen has concerns, they are more than welcome to contact myself, or if it’s about public safety they’re welcome to contact Chief Deese and we will try to get it corrected,” she said.