Improvements still recommended for St. Louis County 911 dispatch systems
Jun 20, 2012 (Duluth News Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Examination of numbers in a recent report that criticized call-processing times by the St. Louis County 911 emergency dispatch center shows that concerns were largely overblown. Still, a consultant strongly recommends improvements to the dispatch center's call-tracking systems.
Duluth recently hired a consulting firm to analyze its fire operations and offer recommendations. The resulting report by Paul Flippin, a project manager for the TriData Division of System Planning Corp., initially flagged call-processing times as unacceptable.
While Flippin said he requested data about when 911 calls were received, he was instead furnished with the times that call entry windows were opened.
Treating the file-creation times as call-received times skewed the data, said Marcus Bruning, a supervising deputy for the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office.
It's common for call center staff to open a window in anticipation of the next call they will receive, and this practice can actually shorten response times, he explained. But the mere existence of an open file did not indicate an emergency response was necessarily in progress, Bruning said.
"The way they were interpreting the data was incorrect," he said.
St. Louis County staff handles emergency calls for both the Sheriff's Office and the city of Duluth through a centralized call center.
Duluth Fire Chief John Strongitharm said there was no error in the data provided to the consultant but it nevertheless led to a false conclusion.
"After a deeper look into the data, it turned out to be a non-issue," Strongitharm said of the response times. "We're real happy after taking a second look at this that the county is providing good service."
When calls between July 2010 and June 2011 were re-examined individually, it came to light that the average response time was just 38 seconds -- well within acceptable bounds.
But the county still fell shy of meeting a National Firefighter Protection Association objective of processing calls in 1 minute or less at least 90 percent of the time. St. Louis County's 911 center processed calls within 1 minute and 11 seconds at least 90 percent of the time.
Still, St. Louis County's performance was nowhere near as bad as what the flawed data originally suggested: that at least 90 percent of the time, the county responded in less than 2 minutes and 51 seconds -- missing the standard's mark by 1 minute and 51 seconds.
"We knew the original report wasn't right, so to see it corrected was quite a relief," said Lisa Rae Johannessohn, a St. Louis County communications center supervisor.
"Overall, our response times are pretty much where we want them to be," said Dewey Johnson, another call center supervisor.
St. Louis County faces some special challenges, Johannessohn said.
"One of the factors for our county is how vast it is. Sometimes it takes a little longer to get the right location when we cover so many rural areas," she said.
Johannessohn said the communications center also often receives calls from tourists who don't always have a clear idea of their location.
"Everyone has a cell phone these days, but often they don't know where they're at," Johnson said.
Call to action
Bruning said integrating the dispatch center's different software systems could be an expensive proposition that presents an ongoing challenge due to frequent upgrades.
"We don't see why we should be spending tax dollars just to make a consultant's job easier," he said, pointing out that detailed information about each 911 call is readily available with a bit of digging.
But Flippin urged St. Louis County to coordinate its phone and computer systems so that historical call timestamps would be created, readily allowing for ongoing analysis.
"Without an accurate call-received timestamp, it is not possible to measure call-processing or total response time. ... In a day and age where data collection is incredibly important for public safety agencies to validate their performance, it is highly suggested that the CAD system is able to collect call-received times," Flippin wrote in his report. "The missing timestamp prevents a proper analysis of call-processing time and, perhaps more importantly, total response time."
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