Wis. Officials Discuss Concerns Over Dispatch Times

A report shows that the Dane County 911 center handled more calls more quickly with fewer staff in the mid-2000s than today.


June 01--New data on how long it takes to answer emergency calls and dispatch responders is increasing pressure to reform the Dane County 911 Center's procedures.

On Friday, County Executive Joe Parisi called for a series of immediate steps, and the Dane County Public Safety Communications Center board has set a meeting for 1 p.m. Wednesday to consider them.

Parisi's request, based on data that show the center handled more calls more quickly with fewer staff in the mid-2000s than today, follows findings that the center is failing to meet national standards for answering the phone or sending help.

The data, including months of records requested by the State Journal, are also shedding light on exactly where time is being spent on handling calls and where efficiencies might be possible.

The director of the 911 Center, John Dejung, maintains the center is effectively handling the overwhelming majority of calls. But even before Parisi's urgent request Friday, the center, its board and committees have been exploring ways to streamline the process.

"We've got to make sure the public has confidence in the 911 system," said Maple Bluff Fire Chief Josh Ripp, the newly elected 911 Center board chairman.

The center, which gets more than 300,000 emergency calls annually, has been under fire since the rocky rollout of a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system in April 2013.

Recently, officials verified a complaint that it took 72 seconds just for someone to answer the phone on one emergency call.

Data show the center isn't meeting the national standard for picking up the phone within 10 seconds 90 percent of the time. And once a call is answered, the center is not coming close to the standard for dispatching fire emergencies within one minute -- or 90 seconds in medical emergencies where special instructions are needed -- 80 percent of the time.

Median times -- when half the responses are quicker and the other half slower -- which Dejung contends more fairly represent the typical response time, show the center coming closer to the 60-second and 90-second standard.

"The vast, vast majority of the time, we get it right," Dejung said. "Lives are saved. Property is protected. And we're working hard to do it better and better."

Where there have been problems, most can be traced to a number of changes that were made to the center "literally all at once," said Randy Pickering, president of the Dane County Fire Chief's Association, citing implementation of the new CAD system, radios and call-taking protocols for law enforcement. "You set up a no-win situation."

Debra Julian, who worked at the center for nearly 25 years before retiring in early April, said some changes have significantly added to the time it takes to answer and process calls, sometimes creating a loop in which staffers get tied up and unable to answer new calls.

"We're just getting too much information," she said.

In early May, at Parisi's prodding, the center board accelerated a pilot "pre-alerting" program for more serious emergencies that so far has cut roughly 30 to 60 seconds off dispatch times.

Now, the county executive wants to immediately suspend call-taking protocols for police calls pending a review of their effectiveness, redeploy resources for the peak summer season, develop strategies for call surges, hire part-time employees, review the process for handling hang-up calls, and maximize technology.

"There seem to be data-driven solutions here," Parisi chief of staff Josh Wescott said.

Cellphones, heavy use spur delays

Each emergency call can be broken into six pieces, and data are allowing new insight into where time is spent.

A call taker must answer the phone; get the caller's address, phone number, name and nature of the emergency; go through a series of scripted questions; alert a dispatcher; and, often, continue providing instructions before responders arrive at the scene. Meanwhile, a dispatcher must acknowledge the alert, ask a computer for a recommended response and send responders.

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