July a Test for 911 Call Center Changes

Some concerns addressed, but sheriff plans takeover bid if month is inadequate


 
 

Mara H. Gottfried | | Tuesday, July 8, 2008


RAMSEY COUNTY, Minn. -- This month could be a crucial test for Ramsey County's new 911 center.

Call volumes tend to be 25 percent higher in July in Minnesota than in December, and, with some workers already describing the county's Emergency Communications Center as ailing, some question whether it can keep up.

Sheriff Bob Fletcher said he plans to use data from this month to analyze the ECC's service and decide if he'll try to take it over.

In the first six months after the merger of the St. Paul, Maplewood and Ramsey County sheriff's 911 operations last year, the ECC exceeded national standards for speed in answering 911 calls.

The standard of answering at least 90 percent of 911 calls in 10 seconds will continue to be met this summer, despite more calls, said Scott Williams, who is director of Ramsey County emergency communications and oversees the combined center.

But Williams said he wants to make sure each caller gets "the amount of time that they need, to give them the best service that we can."

Some workers say insufficient staffing, inadequate training and equipment glitches have compromised service. Among the problems: Emergency responders were sent to wrong addresses, tornado sirens did not sound or were delayed, and key details about emergency calls were not passed on to first responders.

That's led to stressed-out workers, which makes people sick and ramps up the need for mandatory overtime -- which starts the stress cycle over again, said Christine

Kurr, a St. Paul fire dispatcher and union steward.

Williams said hiring nine more employees will bring the center to full staffing and ease mandatory overtime.

Equipment glitches are being worked through, Williams said. Call takers got sufficient training, though dispatchers need more cross training, he said.

Many public officials said they don't have the same fears for public safety that some workers and Fletcher express.

Little Canada Mayor Bill Blesener -- who, like Fletcher, is a member of the Dispatch Policy Committee, an advisory body to the ECC -- said it's just a matter of employees becoming more comfortable with the new system.

"I think the public is served, and I think the public is safe," he said. "I don't think there's any major worries."

Some problems still need to be worked through.

Among the disputed issues: How much staffing is enough? Are the staffers fully trained? Are stressed-out workers taking more sick days? Has morale plummeted, and has it affected the center's operations? And should Fletcher take over operations?

STAFFING

As of Tuesday, 105 call takers and dispatchers worked at the center. Full staffing is considered 114, Williams said.

There were 52 call takers, including one on medical leave. The call-taker numbers included eight who were finishing training. There were 53 dispatchers, including two on medical leave and one on a nonmedical leave of absence.

The center plans to hire nine more call takers, perhaps in September, which would bring it to full staffing, Williams said.

But Fletcher said he thinks the center needs six more dispatchers and 12 more call takers in addition to the nine it plans to hire.

He said he's basing his figures on the ratio of employees to the number of calls, in an attempt to get the ratio closer to that of the suburban centers before the merger. (The merger began June 20, 2007, when the sheriff's office and Maplewood centers combined. The St. Paul center joined Oct. 30.)

Fletcher said there should be enough staff to allow for more call takers on each shift, to "relieve stress-related sick time," he said.

"In order to get to other ringing calls, the conversations are more abbreviated than they need to be," Fletcher said. "The accuracy of the information isn't as good as if there was appropriate staffing."

Ramsey County Manager Dave Twa said the county's Board of Commissioners has committed to provide more staff if ECC management says it needs more.

TRAINING

Stewards from the two unions that represent ECC workers said they have concerns about how the new staffers will be trained.

For call takers who came from the St. Paul center, the learning curve has been steep, because different cities handle calls for service in slightly different ways, Kurr, the union steward, said.

"We all used to know our jobs really well, we were a well-oiled machine, but now we're like a squeaky wheel," she said.

Employees got classroom training, Williams said. Call takers also did "sit-alongs" with their counterparts from the other centers -- they listened in as experienced call takers took calls, Williams said.

"What we found is the vast majority of things were similar, the way that we operate," Williams said. "When you get to the 'hot calls,' the questions are the same and the response is the same -- 'What happened? Do you need medical help? Give me a suspect description, direction of travel.' Get people (emergency personnel) going. The more urgent the call, the more unified the procedure is."

The county board recently approved hiring a consultant to expand training for dispatchers and possibly for call takers, Williams said.

STRESS

Since the merger, some ECC workers started taking medication for high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, according to a list of problems county dispatchers compiled.

Stress has led some employees to resign and some to go on doctor-ordered work restrictions, Kurr said.

Williams said he couldn't confirm individual employees' medical records.

"Anybody can claim whatever they want," he said. "You have to look at what are they really taking (medication), were they taking this before, are they trying to make a point, do they have an agenda?"

Julie Dean, a St. Paul fire dispatcher, said there's a feeling of helplessness, especially when working as a dispatcher and looking over at the call takers.

"The telecommunicators are just so stressed," she said. "You can see all the phones are lit up and nobody can get them."

Stress is leading to more sick time, which also increases mandatory overtime, Kurr said.

The center has started tracking mandatory overtime at the request of the Dispatch Policy Committee, but figures aren't yet available, Williams said.

Cross-training more employees and more hiring should lessen mandatory overtime, Williams said. The center also has implemented a program for employees who have "patterns of suspicious sick time," he said.

MORALE

Some workers said they think management wrongly believes they are raising concerns, and not listening to them, because the employees opposed the merger.

Williams said a group of employees and management meets weekly about operational issues.

But some workers said a memo Williams sent to employees in May didn't help morale.

"For those of you who are still trying to fight against consolidation I have the following message -- get over it," the memo said. "If you continue to expend energy and time fighting against this, the outcome will disappoint you."

Fletcher said he was "very disturbed" by the memo.

"The phrase 'get over it' isn't the type of managerial style that lends itself to good relations with personnel who have concerns," he said.

Williams said he sent the memo, which also praised employees' "great work," because shift supervisors and employees had complained to him "about the lack of teamwork and the attitude and the negativity about some employees."

TAKEOVER BID?

Fletcher originally opposed a single 911 center but said he ultimately supported the merger "with the assurance from Twa that they would have whatever staffing was needed to keep the level of service to the suburbs the same."

Fletcher said he believes St. Paul has benefited more than the suburbs.

He plans to have his office analyze how the center performs between today and Aug. 7. He'll look at how quickly calls were answered and dispatched and the quality of information deputies received when sent to calls.

If the service isn't closer to what it was when Fletcher's office had its own center, he said, he will ask Twa to assign supervision of the ECC to him.

Fletcher said a Minnesota statute empowers him to run the ECC. The law says in part, "a county may establish, construct, equip and maintain a radio broadcasting station ... to be used for public safety purposes under the direction of the sheriff."

Twa said his interpretation of the statute is "significantly different" from Fletcher's.

"At this point, there would be no intention of having the sheriff take over the supervision of the center," Twa said.

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said service has "been steadily improving" and he would be hesitant to change the center's management.

"You need to give this communications center's new staff and new equipment the resources and time to get their job done," he said.

Fletcher said the public shouldn't have to wait much longer.

"We're beyond the point that we should be experiencing the number of mistakes that we are," he said. "The public's expectation is quality of service will come before some administrator's hurt feelings."

Why does Fletcher think he could do a better job?

He said he would successfully advocate for more staffing, make sure the center doesn't get "lost in the bureaucracy of government" and provide experienced law enforcement officers to manage the center.

The decision likely would fall to the county board, Fletcher said. If the board says no, Fletcher said, he could take the matter to Ramsey County District Court.

If Fletcher moves to take over the ECC, he said, he would seek an agreement with the St. Paul police and fire departments to operate it jointly.

WHAT'S BEING DONE

Tim Butler, now the St. Paul fire chief, oversaw the merger of the St. Paul police and fire emergency communications centers in 1999. It was a difficult transition, too, he said.

The ECC is operating "in a fast, safe manner," Butler said.

Butler and other chiefs said problems at the new center are being addressed. There have been monthly meetings with police, fire and medical agencies to get feedback, Williams said.

A supervisor is working full time on quality-assurance issues, he said.

In addition to a training consultant, the county board recently approved hiring a new employee and another consultant. The new employee will look at best practices at dispatch centers around the country and how to implement performance measures at the ECC, Williams said.

The other consultant will work on tasks like updating computerized maps at the ECC, Williams said.

"We take this very seriously," Twa said of improving ECC service. "We will make this work, and it will be a high-quality system delivering the best possible services to our residents."

Although Maplewood City Council Member Kathleen Juenemann didn't favor the merger, she knew her city couldn't afford to continue running its own center.

"Once it (the merger) happened, I knew we had to make it work," Juenemann said. "This is public safety. You can't afford one major error. The major error is going to be someone's life or death."

Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262.




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