Dispatch problems delay Wis. firefighters on calls

In October, it took nearly four minutes to dispatch crews to a fatal fire

The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Mayor Paul Soglin and other city officials have detailed serious problems with Dane County’s 911 center, voicing “grave concern” that sluggish dispatch times and other issues are putting emergency responders and the public at risk.

Soglin delivered a blistering, five-page letter to County Executive Joe Parisi Tuesday morning outlining the city’s concerns and suggestions for fixing them, followed by a press conference with Fire Chief Steven Davis, interim Police Chief Randy Gaber and others in the afternoon.

The concerns include dispatch times since April 2013 — when the county launched a new dispatch system — that fall far short of national standards, and numerous dispatch errors including sending responders to the wrong address and providing inaccurate or incomplete information.

“This is not a question of getting along,” Soglin said. “This is not a matter of compromise. This is zero tolerance for these mistakes.”

The letter lists 32 alleged dispatch errors, including an Oct. 16 incident when it took three minutes and 48 seconds to dispatch Madison firefighters to a fire in which a person died. The most recent two incidents were on Feb. 11, when Madison police were not dispatched for eight minutes after separate incident calls.

None of the dispatch errors directly resulted in a death or serious injury, but delays created risks and undermined investigations, Davis and Gaber said.

The director of the 911 center, John Dejung, did not return a message Tuesday.

In a statement, Parisi’s chief of staff Josh Wescott said the bulk of the incidents the mayor cited “directly relate” to the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system the county installed in April, when it swapped out an older system. The system, bought from TriTech Software Systems of San Diego at a cost of $3.7 million, contained many features the city had requested, while call-taking protocols were those sought by former Madison Fire Chief Debra Amesqua and others, Wescott said.

“Like any new software implementation, multiple technical fixes have been completed or are underway on CAD,” Wescott said. “Issues related to a number of the calls cited by the mayor have already been fixed — some of them many months ago.”

The city directly influences management of the 911 center as half the members to the body that governs operating practices are city staff, Wescott said. If Soglin believes Madison’s interests would be better served by a city-only 911 center, the mayor should move in that direction and the county would cooperate with transition planning, Wescott said.

Soglin, informed of Wescott’s response, said the 911 center board is advisory and that “all of the decision-making is made in the silo of county government.

“I’m just really disappointed in the immaturity of their response,” the mayor continued. “What they’re doing in this case is blaming the rape victim. I’m frustrated that they don’t appear to be taking this seriously.”

The county, Soglin said, should immediately begin an analysis of the alleged dispatch errors, determine if they resulted from human or technical problems, and create an action plan to make sure they don’t happen again.

Without cooperation, a city dispatch system “is certainly an option,” the mayor said.

City Council President Chris Schmidt called for a meeting of leaders and staff.

Madison’s concerns about the dispatch center were outlined in the State Journal on Jan. 26, when city officials said they lacked confidence in parts of the center, especially the new dispatch system and planned replacement radios.

In November, Davis wrote to the county to voice concern about a host of problems.

In late January, the county, which gets more than 300,000 emergency calls annually and sends emergency responders to a third of them, acknowledged problems with the rollout of the new dispatch system and delays getting new radios. But officials said then that problems were being addressed and that the system is safe and strong.

The dispatch center, Soglin insisted Tuesday, has failed to meet agreed-upon and established guidelines that would have the center meet National Fire Protection Association standards of processing 80 percent of emergency calls within one minute, and 95 percent of calls within 1 minute 46 seconds.

From April through December, 80 percent of calls handled by the 911 center took up to three minutes before dispatch, and 95 percent of calls were handled within 4 minutes and 2 seconds.

“The standards were established as a guideline to ensure that rescue services are received to potentially save a life,” Soglin wrote to Parisi. “When these guidelines are not met, the health and safety of the entire community is at risk. The fact that the 911 center never met these standards for a single month between April and December is alarming.”

Dispatch errors, meanwhile, are also putting police and firefighters at risk, Soglin wrote, citing studies that found a fire can double in size every 30 seconds.

The dispatch errors Soglin cited involve burglaries, weapons incidents, crashes, fires and more. The mayor said he’s especially troubled by a dispatch for a heart attack that took an hour, and incomplete information that left a police officer at risk.

Although none of the errors resulted in tragedy, “hopefully, it doesn’t have to go that far to make change,” Davis said.

In addition to analyzing errors, the county should train 911 staff on the city’s geographical layout, consider having 911 staff dedicated solely to dispatch in the city, make sure national dispatching guidelines are followed, and revisit procedures for answering calls, among other measures, Soglin said.

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