South Carolina county offers possible solutions to Dane Co. 911 woes
MADISON, Wis. — There’s a giant video screen at the front of the Charleston County, South Carolina, 911 center split into four quadrants. In the upper left-hand corner is a timer measuring in giant numbers how long it takes for incoming 911 calls to be answered.
As Jim Lake watched last week during two afternoon rush hours, the clock never made it to five seconds without an operator picking up. The director of Charleston County’s 911 Consolidated Dispatched Center smiled when that was brought to his attention as he knows it wasn’t always this efficient.
“We experienced some bugs early on,” he said. “Call processing times, call answer times, they were longer than we wanted and far longer than the public expected.”
For example, in 2011 the 911 center answered 67.1 percent of emergency calls within 10 seconds during the busiest hour of the day. The national standard is to answer 90 percent of those calls within 10 seconds. Over the last year, they’ve met that standard 94 percent of the time.
There is also a national standard to get 80 percent of all emergency calls dispatched to crews within one minute. Last December, Charleston County was only able to meet that standard 40.7 percent of the time. In the last quarter of the year, it’s been able to do so 79.8 percent.
News 3 traveled to Charleston County in search of solutions to the problems at the Dane County 911 Center. These problems have included some 911 callers waiting up to six minutes to have their calls answered and more than 20 minutes to have emergency crews dispatched. The center had not been close to performing at national standard levels in recent years.
Charleston County is roughly the same size, takes roughly the same number of emergency calls and uses the same computer system.
“The bumps that we’ve hit in the road, we’ve always been up front. That’s us. That’s our responsibility,” Lake said. “I think what the citizens need to know is that we are trying to provide the best service that we can and if we don’t, we need to hear from them so we can fix that.”
Lake said the solution to call-answer-time problems was convincing the county board to finance more positions. Current staffing projections in Charleston County totals 157 positions.
Compare that to the 88 budgeted currently in Dane County. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has proposed adding six positions in his pending 2015 budget.
“The major fix to that problem was staffing,” he said. “Our call answer times were showing it was taking us longer to answer those calls because we didn’t have enough staff in those chairs to answer those calls.”
In Dane County, firefighters, police officers and paramedics have complained they’re not being dispatched quickly enough to lead to the best possible result for citizens. Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Mark Smith said his crews had the same complaint until this spring when the 911 operators there began using a tool called quick dispatch.
Emergency callers are asked two questions: the address of the emergency and what happened. From there, they can send help immediately while continuing to collect information from the 911 callers. Smith said, and the numbers back it up, that his crews are out the door now a minute faster than they were before using quick dispatch.
“We want to get there. We want to keep the situation from getting worse and provide the best care we can, and we have to do that in a timely manner,” he said. “Seconds mean death.”
In Dane County, 911 operators ask callers five questions before they ask what happened: What’s the address of the emergency? Verify the address? What phone number are you calling from? Verify the phone number? What’s your name?
“It’s just common sense,” Smith said. “When folks call 911, the two things they want to say is where they’re at and what’s going on.”
Like in Dane County, Charleston County fire engines, ambulances, squad cars and other emergency vehicles have computers where the 911 operators can continue to send them information as they are on the way to the scene.
“You cannot measure in dollar amount the impact, the positive impact on the community, but from 20 years of inherent experience, I know there’s been lives saved,” Smith said. “There’s been less dollar loss to fire. There are people who survived vehicle accidents and traumatic events and medical events that never would have happened before.”
Another component to that is what’s called border dropping, which means the closest unit goes to the call. All the fire departments in Charleston County have auto-aid agreements. They train together, create standard operating practices together and routinely help each other respond to emergency calls.
Parisi recommended border drops after the October 2013 fire that killed Madison resident Chris Williams. He lived on the border of Monona and Madison and while Monona crews were closer, Madison crews were sent.
Smith said the Charleston County policy came about after his department lost nine firefighters in a 2007 warehouse fire. City of Charleston fire crews passed through two different jurisdictions with fire engines at the ready on their way to battle that fire.
“Dropping the borders is key to our whole system,” he said. “No one is brand-specific when it comes to 911. When you have an emergency, you don’t care if it says Charleston Fire Department on the side of the truck. You’re going to get the closest available unit that has the capabilities to handle your emergencies.”
Lake, who was brought to Wisconsin this week to conduct trainings and serve as the keynote speaker for Wisconsin’s emergency responders’ organization, believes in transparency, insisting that his department’s performance metrics are posted on its website and social media pages regularly. In contrast, Dane County’s 911 website has not been updated in roughly two years.
Lake and all of his managers check the performance numbers multiple times a day. They measure how long operators take to answer calls and how long they’re on calls, but Lake said philosophically, data is used to improve service to the public.
“It tells me the director, do my people need something more from me?” he said. “Do my people who are actually doing the job need more assistance with more personnel? Do they need more supervisory assistance? Is their equipment functioning the way it should be? Are they being overworked, and am I creating another problem by forcing them to answer calls too quickly?”
“That data gives me a report card on how they’re doing, but even more importantly it tells me what I need to do to support the people who are really doing the job,” Lake said.
Charleston County’s 911 operation also hired a public outreach coordinator to speak to schools, Rotary and Kiwanis groups, and provide tours to better educate the community about what 911 does and does not do. Dane County’s 911 center does not have such a position.
Overall, Charleston County spends roughly $12 million a year on 911 services. Compare that with Dane County, which spends $7.75 million. Parisi’s proposed 2015 budget seeks to increase that to $8.55 million, which is a 7.5 percent increase. Five years ago, Parisi’s office reported 911 spending was at $6.1 million.
Parisi’s office released data this week showing 911 call answer times getting better. Last June through October, the busiest time for the Dane County 911 Center, 84.5 percent of 911 calls were answered in 15 seconds or less. From June 27 to Oct. 22, 2014, 92 percent were being answered within 15 seconds.
Also, the most recent data since the Dane County 911 center began what’s called pre-alerting, or asking fewer questions before learning what happened and sending help, shows dispatch times getting better. However, it appears that it still takes crews more than two minutes on average to get out the door. That’s double the time suggested in the national standard.
Lake is loath to discuss another 911 center’s issues, but as someone who’s overseen a 911 operation that struggled, he can relate and offers this advice.
“Be clear and transparent about what occurred and your plan to fix it,” he said. “What we’ve found and what we’ve practiced is often times there is not just one bump or one problem causing that system-wide problem, it’s usually several of those things and unless you have a real plan to address those issues, you’re never going to succeed in fixing the problem.