Crisis Every 2 Minutes

County 911 Official Talks About How They Strive To Get It Right


P.J. Reilly | | Wednesday, August 13, 2008

LANCASTER, Pa. -- On any given day last year, the Lancaster County-Wide Communications center handled 597 emergency 911 calls.

That's about 25 calls per hour, or one call every 2 1/2 minutes.

Those calls were handled by a staff of 66 call-takers and dispatchers who are intensively trained for about a year after they are hired, according to Tim Baldwin, deputy director of Lancaster County-Wide Communications.

In June, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency audited County-Wide Communications' training and quality-assurance programs and deemed the county exceeded state standards for training and met the standards for quality-assurance.

Baldwin said the county agency is proud of its performance, but he added there always is room for improvement.

"Obviously, you want perfection on every call," he said. "We want timely call-taking and timely dispatching on every call.

"Will we be able to do that on every call? I certainly hope so, but I know for sure that when we don't, we will take corrective measures."

According to Baldwin, corrective measures were taken after a 911 call was placed in the early morning hours of May 12, 2007, by a neighbor of Tom and Lisa Haines. The call was placed shortly after the Manheim Township couple and their 16-year-old son, Kevin, had been fatally stabbed.

Kevin's Manheim Township High School classmate, Alec Kreider, 17, pleaded guilty to the killings in June.

County officials said there was a delay of 3 minutes and 33 seconds from the time the call was placed and the time police were dispatched.

Also, the emergency call-taker who handled the 911 call never told the radio dispatcher an intruder might still be inside the Haineses' Blossom Hill home.

Baldwin declined to comment on the corrective measures the county took in this case, nor would he say if any employees were disciplined.

But he talked at length about how the county's quality-assurance program works.

According to Baldwin, the program begins when an employee is hired by the communications center.

That hiring kicks off a year of intensive training, which consists of classroom instruction, shadowing a full-time dispatcher and taking non-emergency calls.

"These people are evaluated every step of the way," Baldwin said. "This job isn't for everyone."

What the new employees are learning are the procedures and protocols for various types of emergency communications, which include 911 calls from the public and radio calls from police officers, firefighters and emergency medical service technicians.

Eventually, new employees begin handling 911 calls before they can be assigned a post as a radio dispatcher.

All year long, Baldwin said, County-Wide Communications directors randomly pick calls to review, and they discuss how dispatchers and call-takers handled them.

They also review the handling of calls on every "high-profile" emergency situation, such as a murder, large fire or major traffic accident, he said.

"What we do is we dissect that information and figure out what we did right, what we might have done wrong and what we need to do to correct the situation if we did something wrong," Baldwin said.

Corrective measures can be aimed at a specific dispatcher, or they can be incorporated into the center's overall training program.

Baldwin said the county recently upgraded its communications software to include a feature which could have avoided the problems with the Haines call.

With the upgrade, 911 call-takers now can communicate with dispatchers via computer while the call-taker is on the phone with the person calling for help.

Previously, Baldwin said, the call-taker had to terminate the 911 call before sending information to a dispatcher.

"It wasn't very user-friendly in that regard," he said.

While the upgrade has been made since the Haines family murders, Baldwin said the change was planned before the killings.

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