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Why are 9-1-1 dispatchers handling non-emergency calls?

Most people take for granted that when they dial 9-1-1, the call will be immediately answered and responded to with help on the way. What happens if that is not the case? In some scenarios, lives can be lost.

In Madison, Wis. a new 9-1-1 system and new call handling methods are being implemented, partially due to a story that got national attention in April 2008. University of Wisconsin student Brittany Zimmermann dialed 9-1-1 before she was killed by one or more unknown assailants in Madison on April 2, 2008. Her killer (or killers) have, to date, never been apprehended. The call was made from Brittany Zimmermann’s cell phone shortly before she was stabbed to death.

There was no response to her initial call for help (the 9-1-1 Center received a call from Zimmermann before she was killed, but they did not dispatch police nor did they immediately or accurately inform police about the call after her body was discovered). The dispatcher said she didn’t hear a scream or sounds of a struggle on the call and didn’t call the number back or send police to investigate.

On Feb. 22, 2010, a delay was granted on the implementation of parts of a new 9-1-1 system for Dane County, Wis. On Feb. 19, 2010, a Dane County judge ruled in favor of a postponement of the implementation of certain parts of the 9-1-1 center’s newly introduced automated-attendant call handling system. Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas determined that though the system itself could be implemented, a new dispatching system that handles parking enforcement issues—which are currently routed through the 9-1-1 center—would not be put into effect because of the city of Madison’s objections as to how it would be funded.

Following an audit of the county’s 9-1-1 center in February 2009, Dane County 9-1-1 Director John Dejung went about following the recommendations to streamline and improve activities in the center. The most prominent recommendations were the training of staff and the addressing of the center’s handling of thousands of non-emergency calls on a monthly basis. The new system would route non-emergency calls to other departments rather than having them be handled by 9-1-1 emergency dispatchers, as was the case until recently.

The city filed an affidavit requesting a restraining order on the system’s implementation. Following Colas’ decision, County Executive Kathleen Falk said Dane County citizens need to know that in their hour of need, they will get a 9-1-1 dispatcher, not someone who’s working on parking violations. City Attorney Michael May said Falk was without the authority to implement the system given its connection to operating practices. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said he supported Colas’ decision to postpone Falk’s attempt to push through the dispatch system.

The bulk of the new non-emergency call system went into effect in February 2010. Falk said though 9-1-1 Center dispatchers may still be faced with handling parking enforcement calls, the system’s intent to free up the time and resources of dispatchers would be mostly preserved.

Colas determined the parking issue to be an operational practice, but added that the city’s request for an injunction of the system’s implementation as a whole could potentially endanger county residents. MacKenzie said the issue here is not harm to the city or harm to the county, but harm to the public. Further hearings in the case are to be scheduled. The fate of the parking enforcement dispatches will be determined sometime afterward.

For 9-1-1 to do its job, all parts of the system need to be in working order. That includes personnel as well as technology. Even the most advanced technology can’t help if dispatchers are handling non-emergency calls at the same time. With agency and county budgets tightened, this is one area we can’t afford to skimp on.

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2010

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