Trouble at the Other End of 911

Inside Ramsey County's emergency communications center


 
 

Mara H. Gottfried | | Monday, July 7, 2008


RAMSEY COUNTY, Minn. -- Police on emergency runs were sent to wrong addresses, sometimes in the wrong cities.

Tornado siren glitches meant warnings didn't sound or were delayed crucial minutes.

Key details of emergency calls were not passed on to firstresponders or were slow to come.

When three Ramsey County emergency communications centers merged last year, problems arose that have some of the center's workers sounding their own alarms. They say they're worried about public safety and want to prevent a tragedy caused by things gone awry on their end.

Now, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher says he's giving the county Emergency Communications Center until the beginning of August to improve its service or he may try to use a state law to take over its management from the county manager's office.

The St. Paul police and fire chiefs, and many who run suburban agencies, said the center's problems are mere growing pains and they have no major worries. Some of the same problems happened before the 911 and dispatch centers of St. Paul, Maplewood and Ramsey County sheriff's office merged, they said.

Despite the concerns, there have been no reports of anyone dying or being seriously injured as a result of problems at the ECC.

The center handled more than 440,000 calls -- on 911 and non-emergency lines -- in the first six months after the merger was completed. Any problems would have affected only a small fraction of calls, said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who helped navigate the politically sensitive terms of the merger.

Fletcher said he thinks service has improved for St. Paul since the merger but the suburbs have suffered.

"When a person's life is in danger or an officer is exposing him or herself to danger, there's no room for error. They have to be perfect," said Fletcher, a member of the Dispatch Policy Committee, an advisory body to the ECC composed of public officials.

Ramsey County Manager Dave Twa disagrees with Fletcher's assessment. The service is better for all communities, he said.

"If you look at the numbers -- in terms of the number of calls that we're handling as well as the period of time from which the call is received until it is dispatched -- for those communities it is better now than it was prior to the consolidation," Twa said. "There are still issues obviously we have to deal with, with getting three very distinct cultures that we're trying to pull together. We've made a great deal of progress. Overall, we think it's going well."

WHAT THE WORKERS SAY

Some ECC workers disagree with officials' conclusion that the problems are minor.

"Something bad is going to happen, and we're trying to ward it off," said Christine Kurr, a St. Paul fire dispatcher and a union steward.

One dispatcher said workers are upset by what they see as a decline in service.

"The only question that really needs asking and answering is, 'Are the people who are being served getting a better service now than before the merger?' and the answer is, 'Absolutely not,' " said the dispatcher. "The biggest fear is that someone's going to die and it will have been preventable."

The dispatcher asked not to be named, afraid of losing a job after the center's director sent a memo to employees saying "behavior that undermines teamwork needs to change." The memo cited, as an example, making statements to "persons outside the department that demonstrate distrust in the skills or ability of a group of coworkers."

The problems essentially fall into three categories -- equipment, staffing and training:

--Glitches have affected the center's technology. At one point, because of problems with the Computer Assisted Dispatching program, information about emergency calls transmitted from call-takers to dispatchers was intermittently delayed. While that problem has been fixed, others have persisted.

--Fletcher and some employees say the center needs a larger staff. "In order to get to other ringing calls, the conversations are more abbreviated than they need to be," Fletcher said, explaining the need for more employees.

--Some workers believe they haven't received enough training for their new responsibilities. People who came from the St. Paul center, who handle 911 calls, now take calls from St. Paul and 15 other cities in Ramsey County.

Not all ECC workers take as dim an overall view. While St. Paul police dispatcher Illiana Cantu thinks there are still issues to be worked through, some things are better than they were at the old center -- the equipment is newer, for example.

"The attitude we all have to take on is accepting the challenges and working as a team to improve service," she said.

THE MERGER

The emergency communications centers began merging in June 2007. The Ramsey County sheriff's office and Maplewood centers combined first, on June 20, 2007. The St. Paul center joined Oct. 30.

Today, anyone who dials 911 in St. Paul or greater Ramsey County -- except in White Bear Lake, which maintains its own center -- is calling a center just east of downtown St. Paul. All emergency calls are dispatched from the new center.

The project's $32 million price tag included the new technology and equipment, plus a new building between the Ramsey County jail and St. Paul police headquarters. The county pays for 60 percent of the center's operations through property taxes, with the rest split between St. Paul and suburbs based on their share of 911 calls.

One driving force for the merger was implementation of the 800 MHz radio system, which lets law enforcement agencies communicate by radio with each other. (The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks demonstrated that need.)

The merger saved St. Paul more than $2 million and Maplewood about $300,000 that would have gone to new radio equipment, Twa said.

Merging 911 centers is a national trend. Dakota County opened its merged center, which combined five centers to handle all public safety calls and dispatching for the county, in December.

The Dakota Communications Center has had some equipment problems also -- some 911 calls were dropping when things got too busy -- but that has been fixed, said Kent Therkelsen, the center's director.

During planning, Therkelsen said, he was often told it takes about a year to stabilize a merged operation.

Although it's been more than a year since the first part of the merger occurred in Ramsey County, it has been less than a year since the major component -- St. Paul -- came on board. Staffing has been steadily increasing and equipment bugs are being worked out, but it takes time, said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, who represents Maplewood, North St. Paul, White Bear Lake and the Hillcrest area of St. Paul.

"Do I wish we didn't have some of the issues with my communities? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel anyone's been put in harm's way? No, I do not. What I hear from people is more frustration than they were in danger."

WRONG ADDRESSES

Workers said they believe they are catching many problems before they become bigger.

In the old Maplewood and Ramsey County sheriff's office's call centers, workers who took 911 calls also dispatched emergency crews. In St. Paul, the duties were split between call-takers and dispatchers. At the new center, all duties are split.

Some problems with addresses come about because the people who mostly take 911 calls are from the old St. Paul center or are new employees of the merged center, and are unfamiliar with suburban streets, workers said.

The situation is improving as call-takers gain experience with unfamiliar geography, said Scott Williams, who is director of Ramsey County emergency communications and oversees the ECC.

In many wrong-address cases the Pioneer Press asked about, the problem wasn't attributed to the center -- callers gave wrong addresses, didn't know what city they were in or were uncooperative.

That was the case in a Dec. 29 call.

On that day, someone called 911 at 11:27 p.m. about a stabbing. The caller gave a street number and "Stillwater," but nothing else, Williams said. The call-taker asked several times for more information, but the caller wasn't responsive, Williams said.

Police were sent to Stillwater Avenue in St. Paul, but not until a second call was it determined the address was on Stillwater Street in White Bear Township. Deputies arrived at the correct address at 11:51 p.m.

Both calls were from cell phones, as are roughly half of 911 calls the ECC receives, Williams said. When someone calls 911 from a cell phone, the geographic area is displayed on a map on a computer screen at the ECC. The "accuracy varies quite a bit and it can be very poor," Williams said. The exact address is displayed only when someone calls 911 from a landline.

A call with a wrong address because of operator error occurred March 8. Someone called the ECC at 5:29 p.m. and reported a fight on Minnehaha Avenue, between Lexington Parkway and Victoria Street, which would have been in St. Paul.

The call-taker heard the location as Lexington Avenue and Victoria Street, which placed it in Shoreview, Williams said.

Sheriff's deputies were dispatched to Shoreview. When the correct address was determined, St. Paul officers were sent and arrived at 5:43 p.m.

The caller had phoned a non-emergency police line, and such calls don't display addresses.

Misrouted calls happened before the merger, too, said St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington and others.

"It's a different paradigm when you think that people who took calls never had to ask, 'What city are you calling from?' " said Maplewood Police Chief Dave Thomalla. "It doesn't seem right to the callers because they know they're calling for the Maplewood police."

QUALITY OF INFORMATION

Another problem in Ramsey County: How much information emergency responders get from dispatchers.

Ramsey County dispatchers wrote in a list of problems they compiled: "St. Paul's center had operated on a 'quantity not quality' in taking their phone calls and still does. Not enough information is obtained by their call takers, which puts everyone at risk."

Williams disputed the claim that call-takers formerly of the St. Paul center collect less information.

"St. Paul police officers and firefighters expect the same information, the same quality of information, the same quality of service from our dispatchers as the suburban agencies," he said. "And if you want to talk about quality, the amount of phone calls handled by these people that had experience in St. Paul, who were trained in St. Paul, has made them dynamite telecommunicators."

An example of delayed information occurred April 15, when someone called 911 about a medical emergency in Vadnais Heights. The initial information entered said a woman was conscious and breathing. About six minutes later, the call-taker added that the woman was having a heart attack.

The caller had reported an "acute MI," Williams said. "MI" stands for "myocardial infarction," the medical term for heart attack. The information should have been added to the call right away, but the call-taker might not have been familiar with the term and had to ask someone what it meant, Williams said.

STORM SIRENS

On May 25, the National Weather Service issued two tornado warnings in northeastern Ramsey County, not far from where a tornado touched down that day in Hugo and killed a 2-year-old boy (the severe weather sirens in Hugo were activated by Washington County). The first time a shift supervisor tried to activate sirens in Ramsey County, they didn't go off.

The supervisor had used instructions posted on the siren encoder that were outdated because of a programming change months earlier, Williams said. As a result, no activation command was sent to the sirens, he said.

The supervisor didn't know the sirens hadn't sounded because no panel indicator tells whether sirens have gone off, Williams said.

When the second warning was issued 20 minutes later, the supervisor used a different set of instructions because she suspected a problem -- lights were blinking on the panel that normally didn't, Williams said. The sirens worked that time.

The instructions on the siren encoder have been corrected, Williams said. Officials may add technology to inform staff whether the sirens were set off, he said. Employees have also been instructed to check with squad cars in the field to verify that sirens have sounded, Williams said.

On May 31, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning that included Ramsey County. An employee tried to sound the sirens for St. Paul, but they didn't go off. To get around the problem, an employee pushed the test button (which sounds sirens the first Wednesday of each month) and it worked. Williams described the delay as a couple of minutes.

Williams said he thinks the siren problems have been worked out.

EQUIPMENT

The system that coordinates information, Computer Assisted Dispatch was installed in December 2006, before the merger.

Outdated maps are the biggest unresolved CAD problem. A call-taker might get a call for a street built after the map was made, and CAD can't find the street in the system. The call-taker can still force the information through, so help is sent, Williams said.

The map problems exist in other cities, but Maplewood seems affected "out of proportion to the number of streets," Williams said.

Map problems occurred before the merger, but because Maplewood dispatchers knew the city "like the back of their hands," they could work through them, said Maplewood City Council Member Kathleen Juenemann.

"Now, they're in a setting where they can't just know that," she said. "Obviously, the map has to be much better."

The city of St. Paul runs the CAD system. St. Paul has beefed up its technology department's staff and is working with county staff to ensure CAD maps get updated "very, very quickly," said St. Paul Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland.

A bigger problem, resolved at the start of the year, was information from call-takers to dispatchers being intermittently "lost in thin air," said Kurr, the dispatcher.

"A telecommunicator would say, 'Did you get my update about the knife on the call on Maryland (Avenue)?' and the dispatcher would say, 'What call on Maryland?' " Kurr said.

Williams said dispatchers were not getting a computerized alert of a pending call to be dispatched. It was fixed by changing some program code, Williams said.

Another equipment problem: the phones.

The center's "cumbersome, confusing" phone system has employees dealing with "dropped calls, calls placed on hold by one person that cannot be picked up by another, and difficulty in placing non-emergency calls on hold to pick-up incoming 911 calls," Kurr wrote in a January St. Paul Police Federation newsletter.

Dealing with the phone system has been a combination of employees' spending time getting used to it and tweaking it to work better, Williams said.

Because of the ECC's problems, Fletcher said he plans to have his office analyze data about how the center performs between Monday and Aug. 7. If things haven't improved, the sheriff said, he may move to take over the center.

But Fletcher is misreading the Minnesota statute he is relying on for his potential takeover bid, said Twa, the county manager.

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

A TWO-PART SERIES

Today: Problems alleged at the new Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center.

Monday: Staffing, training, stress and morale; the sheriff's takeover threat; dealing with problems.




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