Commission approves study for new 911 dispatch center
By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 22, 2014 1:46 PM
Telecommunicator and shift supervisor Calvin Harvey operates one of the stations at Wayne County's 911 center, which last year handled 363,786 calls -- a number that is expected to climb as new standards go into effect that will require that the center be able to accept texts, photos and video.
When someone calls Goldsboro's water department after hours, the call winds up at Wayne County's already swamped E-911 call center. The calls do not tie up emergency lines, but they do tie up personnel.
Last year alone, the center fielded 363,786 calls, nearly three for every person in the county.
Of that total, 104,880 calls resulted in units being dispatched, 111,751 were incoming administrative calls, including the calls that come from other sources, 111,178 were outgoing administrative calls, 25,583 were hang-ups and 10,394 were alarms.
The increase in hang-ups, which requires multiple callbacks from the center, is blamed in part on people misdialing the 919 area code that is now required on local calls.
Also contributing to the increase in calls are cell phones that make it easier for more people to report an emergency.
Wayne County commissioners and the county Office of Emergency Services want to reduce, if not eliminate, the hang-ups and the administrative calls in anticipation of new rules that they expect will make the center even busier.
Those rules will require the call center to be able to accept text and even video in addition to regular phone calls.
On Tuesday morning, commissioners agreed to a $48,150 study on options for expanding the center, adding a secondary, or backup center, staffing levels, call volume and options to decrease or to eliminate non-emergency calls.
The study also would include an analysis of staffing needs at different times of the day and the adequacy of salaries to attract and to retain qualified employees.
It has been three years since the county last looked at the 911 center with an eye toward improving it. Plans for a $2 million call center were shelved in 2011 because of pending changes in state and federal standards. There has been little discussion about the project since then.
The contract for the study, which is expected to take about six months, was awarded to Mission Critical, a multi-state company that has an office in Raleigh. The company was recommended by the county's Office of Emergency Services.
Once the study is complete, Mission Critical also would help the county in applying for state and federal grants next spring to help pay for any work at the call center.
Of particular interest to the county is finding a way to greatly reduce the volume of administrative calls.
Commissioners questioned Fire Marshal Bryan Taylor about the calls. Taylor said no one knows why the after-hours calls to the city's water department end up at the call center. It is just something that started many years ago, he said.
It happened at a time when the county's municipalities, even Goldsboro, were smaller and had their own call centers, he said.
Commissioner Joe Daughtery said administrative calls accounts for almost 30 percent of the call volume at the center.
While a water problem might be an emergency to the caller, "911 does not need to handle water cutoffs," he said.
Progress has been in eliminating some of those calls, Taylor said. For example, calls to the county's facilities department also used to go to the call center. However, that issue was resolved by installing a telephone line for such calls, he said.
Commissioner Chairman Wayne Aycock said people need to be better educated about what to do when they accidentally dial 911. They need to remain on the phone to let dispatchers know there is no emergency. Otherwise, dispatchers are required to make at least two callbacks.
County Attorney Borden Parker told commissioners that state law requires that law enforcement officers be dispatched after two calls.
The callbacks are important, Aycock said. In some cases, the call might have been made by a child or the person who called might have become incapacitated, he said.
Lives have been saved by the procedure, Aycock said.
"It was almost 10 years ago that the county consolidated all of the 911 centers in the county," Taylor said. "There is a lot of change coming to 911. Some good, some we have got to wait and see."
He also noted that when that consolidation took place the county had six telecommunicators per shift. It still has six despite the growth in call volume, he pointed out.
Public demand is driving the changes, Taylor said.
Texting 911 is the first piece that is rolling out, he said. Taylor said he thinks it has advantages and disadvantages and that people will need to be trained when to use it and when not to.
"With that comes a lot of new technology that we have to install into the center," he said. "It also comes with unknowns for us here in North Carolina."
There are other centers across the nation that are using the system and have data they can share, he said.
Taylor said that after learning about what was coming that he had spoken with Emergency Services Director Joe Gurley about looking at the center as a whole -- is the existing center large enough to handle the changes, and what it going to mean in terms of operations.
Taylor said he suggested the study of the entire operation, and Gurley told him to find some one to do the study.
Taylor said his search was for someone that was "911 specific." Also, the company has experience in helping its clients to secure grants for their projects, he said.