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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It All Starts Here – 911

Dispatchers work on up to seven data screens.
The room seemed quiet. A large number of the “boat lights” were on, and the frequently changing colors indicated that things were busier than they appeared. (“Boat lights” is a dispatcher’s term for the colored lights at each dispatch position that indicates if the console is occupied, if they are talking on the radio, or if they are on the telephone.)

This is where it all starts. The public knows to call 911 to report an emergency—it is automatic. However, it is up to the proficient staff (and layers of technology) to make sense out of what they are being told and to get the correct responders to the correct location. It is a very tough job.

I was at the Dakota Communication Center (the DCC) to meet with Director Diane Lind.  The DCC is a joint powers entity that handles the 911 needs of Dakota County. That means they dispatch for 12 fire departments, 12 police departments, and three fire EMS services. Last year they handled 184,118 calls to 911 and 144,152 non-emergency calls for service.

What is the most difficult type of call?

Diane immediately said it is the calls that involve weapons: “The information on those calls changes so quickly.” By the time the staff hears and then broadcasts the information to the responders, the situation has changed.

In addition, some people “over-report” what is happening and some “under- report.” Diane reflected on some elderly callers who waited a long time—perhaps too long—to call 911 for help, as they didn’t want to bother anybody.

911 phone information and data is broadcast
Has technology made dispatch easier?

Adding to the difficulty is that most callers do not have all the information, some even confuse perception with reality, and many 911 cell phone callers don’t know exactly where they are. The technology can help, but the accuracy varies and the phone GPS data won’t tell the responders which floor to go to, or the unit number of the apartment building that needs help. It doesn’t provide “vertical data.”

Can a person text a 911 call? No. The cell/wireless providers are starting to provide a return message to anyone who texts 911 telling them to use their phone and verbally call 911.

What about the internet phone services? The Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) calls now make up almost 7% of the 911 calls at the DCC. Subscribers to these systems need to keep their 911registrations current with their provider and remember to update that information it if they move. Unfortunately some do not. These calls go to the internet provider who forwards it to the 911 center for the most recent address listed.

What about the future?

Diane reflected on the ongoing technology and workforce changes. Fortunately, she said the newly hired staff is able to pass on their keyboard and technology skills to the veterans. The veterans in turn are passing on their communication skills, composure, and experience.

As I headed out the door, I looked back and again noted how calm and quiet the room appeared—but the boat lights told a different story.


                                           Responder Safety = Public Safety

Up next…Why “Joint Powers” Organizations and Task Forces Need Insurance

In the meantime, stay safe and be careful.


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