Parisi calls for immediate changes to 911 system

Memo released Friday in response to News 3 investigation
Joe Parisi
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi wants smarter staffing decisions, better strategies and a suspension of how all 911 calls for police help are handled in an effort to “reduce call answer times” and the times it takes to dispatch emergency crews to a scene.

In a memo, Parisi outlined six steps he wants 911 Center Director John Dejung to enact immediately. Any operational changes to the way Dane County’s 911 system is run needs the approval of the 911 Center Board and Parisi is asking for an emergency meeting to approve his recommendations.

The suggested changes come after a News 3 investigation chronicled how the Dane County 911 System had failed to meet national standards of answering 90 percent of all 911 calls within 10 seconds or less over the last year. Additional reporting showed more than 4,100 calls taking longer than 40 seconds to answer by 911 communicators.

“It’s important that any next steps be informed by data,” Parisi wrote to Dejung. “In this case, the facts inform and provide the basis for how the Center needs to go about improving performance and restoring public trust. In our line of work, there is no higher priority – people need to know the start of the emergency response system gets the right help going in the most effective manner possible.”

Parisi cited statistics showing there are 10,000 fewer calls per month now than were received during the mid-2000s. Also, in the busiest month of 2014, Parisi said the Dane County 911 Center received 15,000 fewer calls than it did during the busiest month of 2006.

He also said the 911 Center staff has 17 more people than it did in 2006.

“The Center has less incoming workload, more bodies to handle that workload, but calls are taking longer to process,” he wrote. “To me, that speaks to the need to double-back and review operational processes. Something is precluding our staff from operating with the same efficiency they did several years ago.”

Parisi said call processing times increased by 25 percent once the Center Board implemented the Police protocol in 2010, a list of questions asked to every 911 caller for which a police response is needed.

Among the recommendations, Parisi wants a suspension of that protocol. He also wants to re-deploy more resources to the warmer weather months since data shows they’re busier than the cold weather months. If that means, bringing on part-time employees to help with “peak” scheduling needs, that should be done.

He also is calling for a review of the abandoned call process. Each year, 911 receives 22,000 calls where someone hangs up before a 911 operator picks up. That represents 15 percent of the total call volume at the 911 Center. Current policy requires operators call back every hang up.

That policy was implemented after the death of UW student Brittany Zimmerman whose 911 call was cut off after the operator did not hear sounds that constituted an emergency. When police officers arrived 48 minutes later, Zimmerman was found dead.

“Every time someone hangs up, a dispatcher has to stop what he or she is doing and try to call back,” Parisi wrote. “This procedure should be reviewed to see if the process of calling back is precluding other incoming 911 calls to be answered expeditiously. Again, this is a decision that demands direction from the 911 Center Board.”

Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis said he would be happy to devote fire department resources to solving the problem, but he had not been asked by the County Executive’s office to do so. He said he remained confident in the abilities of the 911 Center Board to fulfill the public service goal that everyone involved in the process shares.

“As public safety providers, the public expects us to do better,” said Davis in an interview before Parisi’s recommendations came out. “Our stance from the beginning has been send the right amount of resources to the right call and the right address in the right time frame.”

Davis said time is of the essence in his line of work. One of his assistant chiefs was at the 911 Call Center on Friday to study technology showing predictive models to allow phone lines to be freed up faster.

“As a fire burns for example, it doubles in size every 30 seconds that it burns out of control,” he said. “So what might start as a real small fire, any delays in the system for us getting there could create a major tragedy for life safety and property safety. So, time is everything in our business.”

Parisi met Friday morning with Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and new Madison Police Chief Mike Koval to discuss his recommendations. Koval complimented Parisi for putting forward some ideas to fix the 911 Center problems.

“The wellbeing of our citizens, and of our first responders, is of paramount importance to Chief Koval and the men and women of the Madison Police Department, and our commitment to working with County Executive Parisi, and the 911 Center, remains firm as we all look to address ongoing concerns in a timely manner,” wrote Madison Police Dept. spokesman Joel Despain in an email to News 3.

Last week, Parisi expressed “100 percent support” for Dejung as his contract comes before the Dane County Board in June for renewal. However, on Friday, Parisi, while stating that “the challenges at 911 are (not) any one person’s fault,” he specifically did not answer two separate questions on whether Dejung should continue to lead the center.

Late Friday, the 911 Center Board called an emergency meeting for Wednesday, June 4 at 1 p.m. Parisi said if the board did not act on his recommendations, he would ask the Dane County Board for the authority to act unilaterally to implement the changes.

Koval, for one, believes the 911 Center Board should be an ally not an adversary in remedying the system.

“Chief Koval does not believe the 911 Center Board is at the root of all that has become problematic,” wrote Despain, “but he does pledge the MPD member on the Center Board will work diligently to identify and purse additional efficiencies.”