POSTED ON DECEMBER 19, 2012:
Calling for Help
Citizen task force shines light on 911 deficiencies
Out of four public safety recommendations made this month by a citizens' task force, the group has singled out one as more urgent than the others: improving the 911 emergency communications system.
"We think that it is the number one priority," said Carol Bush, chair for the task force, emphasizing the group's finding that more staff should be hired. The group presented its report Dec. 6 to the Tulsa City Council.
She said that too often, people are placed on hold or have the phone ring several times before getting a response. Addressing 911 shortcomings "would be a huge step in improving the perception that this is not a safe town to live in," Bush said.
A city report last year noted problems with 911 services, and Mayor Dewey Bartlett followed through with a recommendation from the city's Management Review Office to separate 911 from the city's information technology department.
In an interview, Bartlett said important steps have been taken to improve staff morale, in part by working more closely with the city's fire and police departments.
He said the timing isn't appropriate to increase staffing levels.
"I think what we're seeing is we're becoming much more efficient in our use of the existing personnel," Bartlett said, Part of the problem has been workers not showing up for shifts, and Bartlett said such problems have been greatly reduced.
With efficiency still improving, according to Bartlett, "when that gets to a point of where it is steady, and we're seeing what that number of people can accomplish in a good way without being overworked and overstressed ... if we still need more people, yes, we'll look at it at that point. And if we can afford it, we'll hire additional people."
Currently, the department is authorized to have 98 positions. The Public Safety Task Force reported that in 2002, the 911 department had 130 positions.
Bush, who is also executive director of the nonprofit Tulsa Citizen Crime Commission, said positions were eliminated as part of budget cuts. "I think this all stems from that. We've never bounced back from that," she said.
The 911 department also handles calls for Sperry, the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office, and a few other communities.
Another issue facing the 911 department has been changing leadership. Terry Baxter, handpicked by Bartlett to head the 911 department after the reorganization, was reassigned to the city's information technology department after only a few months on the job.
For about five weeks, Scott Clark, a deputy chief with the Tulsa Fire Department, has been heading 911 operations on an interim basis.
Bartlett said Clark will eventually return to the fire department. But there's no rush to hire a permanent director, with the wording of the job description not yet even finalized.
"I want to make sure things get settled down very well, where things are really working well, then we bring somebody in," Bartlett said.
Regardless of who fills the top post, Bartlett said police and fire leaders will continue to have a major role in 911 decisions.
"I think that's a very key component," Bartlett said.
In 2011, the city report noted that only about half of all calls were answered within accepted standards for 911 call centers, which states 95 percent of calls should be answered within 20 seconds.
Clark said 92 percent of calls were answered within 20 seconds last month. "We were under 90 percent in the past, so that has improved," Clark said.
"We've increased our law call-taking and that seems to be where the bottleneck is," Clark said. He explained that calls that come in may be classified as "law" calls, because they require a police response. With initial "law" training of 11 dispatchers complete, Clark said more people are available to answer these "law" calls.
The Public Safety Tasks Force's other recommendations involved boosting public safety funding, improving coordination of prevention programs, and addressing the public's perception of safety. Bush noted that people's experience after dialing 911 affects how they perceive police.
"The first point of contact for public safety is 911. People think that when they call that they're calling the police directly, so they're frustrated by that and then the police show up to a call and people are mad because of their 911 experience," Bush said.
In the last five weeks, Clark said the 911 center has had only one complaint. The center also has done a better job of retaining employees, he said.
Another concern expressed by the citizen task force was a lack of bilingual call talkers. Clark said the 911 center only has three on staff. The 911 center relies on a paid service known as Language Line when callers don't speak English.
One problem noted by the task force involved the type of calls received by the center.
"We were shocked at the number of non-emergency calls going to 911," Bush said.
With the advent of cell phones, Clark said a single accident can easily lead to 50 calls reporting it.
"It's a good problem to have. But it's still a problem," he said.
He said one way the public can help is to stay on the line after calling 911 -- even if they no longer feel they're reporting an emergency. Clark explained that a hang-up requires an attempt to call back the person -- resulting in a drain on resources at the center.
Bartlett and Clark stressed that the center is improving, each noting efforts made by the police and fire departments to work with call takers and dispatchers to create more of a team bond.
Bartlett said wages were recently raised for call takers, and the citizen task force did not include pay increases in its recommendations.
"Recently, they actually got the price per hour up to about what the average is for a call taker center," Bush said.
She said the task force included two former fire officials. "One of them had his own experience. He came upon a fire in his own neighborhood. He called 911 and did not get a direct response," Bush said, so he had to dial a fire station directly. Comments from citizens at crime commission neighborhood meetings also suggested strong concerns about the service.
"'We need to fix 911,' that just kept coming up over and over again," Bush said.
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