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911 bogged down with cumbersome protocol, former calltaker says

By Adam Schrager, aschrager@wisctv.com
Published On: May 22 2014 05:49:52 PM CDT
Updated On: May 22 2014 10:46:25 PM CDT

A former longtime 911 Center communicator said a relatively new computer system and required set of questions to be asked of all emergency callers is slowing down answer times. Adam Schrager reports.

MADISON, Wis. -

A former longtime 911 Center communicator said a relatively new computer system and required set of questions to be asked of all emergency callers is slowing down answer times.

News 3 reported this week that more than 4,100 calls took longer than 40 seconds to answer over the last year.

"On a daily basis, it should be easier to answer phones faster if you weren't bogged down by inefficient, cumbersome protocol," said Debra Julian, who retired earlier this spring after 24 years of work in the 911 Center. "It's an operation that needs to be streamlined."

The center's new computer system and its protocol were implemented last spring. Communicators are required to follow a script of questions for callers, initially treating a cat in tree call the same way as a shooting. Julian said communicators are disciplined by management for straying from the script no matter how many phone calls may be waiting.

"If you're invested with those protocols, you can't hang up, say 'Thank you for calling' and move on to the next ringing phone," she said. "It becomes a really stressful thing for a communicator to know you have to stay with someone who is not reporting a real emergency."

For example, in the case of Dr. Abby Taub, who called to report a car break-in earlier this spring, after she waited 72 seconds for a 911 operator to pick up the phone, another 35 seconds went by before she was asked why she was calling. In the interim, she was asked and re-asked for the address of the emergency, her phone number and her name.

She was calling about an incident others had already reported, but she was still asked numerous questions by the operator, per the 911 Center protocol. The speed with which emergencies are being dispatched is a problem the 911 Center board is aware of and is taking steps to address. However, its chairman said there is no quick fix.

"This is important enough that I don't want to do a knee-jerk reaction to create a fix," said Maple Bluff Fire Chief Josh Ripp. "Whatever we do to repair it needs to be the right answer, not just a different answer."

Julian said some of those answers could be found inside the center if management would ask its workers for counsel. She said her former colleagues are being unfairly blamed for problems created by their managers.

"Answer time and dispatch time has gotten much, much worse," she said. "I tell all of my friends, if it's an emergency and you want someone now, dial 911. Give them your address. If it's medical, say, 'They're not breathing.' Hang up and don't answer again. Because the communicator has no other option but to send everyone as soon as possible."

Julian said there are times when answering questions from a 911 operator is important, but she added that "sometimes, staying on the phone only means the response will be slower."

Law enforcement officials told News 3 they do not agree with what Julian is suggesting, saying it could be dangerous.

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