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Avery Sheriff’s Department and County’s Emergency’s Services Suffer Staff Shortages

By Tim Gardner

The Avery County Jail has been temporarily become intake-only for prisoners due to an insufficient number of detention officers.

Inmates are being transferred to other detention facilities in neighboring counties, according to Interim Sheriff Mike Henley.

“Basically, our jail is an intake-only facility, but if prisoners get active time, we’ll be taking them to jails in Ashe County and McDowell County (both in North Carolina), to serve their incarceration sentences. Males are taken to the Ashe County Jail and females to the McDowell County Jail.” Henley commented to the High Country Press.

When Henley was appointed Interim Sheriff on June 29, 2022, the sheriff’s department was already in need of jailers, he said. And currently, five officers who were working at the detention center had to return to school resource officer positions as the new school year started last week, because they would lose their certification if they’re not working at a school.

“We didn’t have any choice but to send those officers to a school starting in August, and that made our jail staff so much smaller and there has to be certain number of staff to run the detention center safely,” noted Henley, who won the Sheriff’s Race in the May primary before being appointed Interim Sheriff.  He is running unopposed for the post in November’s General Election that will remove his interim tag.

The sheriff’s department is trying to hire personnel to have a full staff, but have at least enough jailers to operate the county’s detention center normally. Besides detention officers, the sheriff’s department is trying to hire more road patrol and school resource officers. 

“It’s not only in the detention center, we’re short on patrol officers and can use more resource officers as well,” Henley said. “We’re about eight positions short combined in those positions.  But we’re working hard to remedy all our personnel shortages as soon as possible with individuals qualified and who will do well in those jobs. Anyone interested in applying can come by the Sheriff’s Office at 300 Schultz Circle in Newland, adjacent to the court house to discuss, or call our office at (828) 733-2071.”

The sheriff’s department isn’t the only Avery County emergency-related organization facing staffing shortages. All of its such services lack much-needed personnel, according to Paul Buchanan, Avery’s Emergency Management Coordinator and Fire Marshal.

“Of course, we’re still operating, but it’s extremely tight as far as getting volunteers out to assist,” he said. “Fortunately, we have gotten some more volunteers in the last several days.  I hope that will continue. All the county’s emergency services are currently needing personnel help and that includes fire departments and ambulance services. Some of the jobs are paid and others are on a volunteer basis.”

For fire departments, Buchanan said that volunteer fire fighters have to use their own fuel to respond to emergencies and attend mandated training, and some struggle financially to do either.

Like Henley, Buchanan added that he hopes personnel shortages is only a short-term problem and that all county emergency departments will be adequately staffed soon.

“I urge anyone wanting to apply for a county Emergency Department job or volunteer for our emergency services to go to that respective agency and do so immediately or call the Emergency Management Office (828) 733-8310 to get pointed in the right direction,” he concluded in remarks to the High Country Press.