County will study its 911 call process


Alachua County Sheriff's Office telecommunications-5 employee Francine Despres works the phone at the Alachua County Combined Communications and Emergency Operations Center Friday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 at 10:32 p.m.

A review of the complete 911 call process - from the time a call comes into the county's police and fire communications center until the time responders arrive at the scene - will be carried out in hopes of improving the system and averting potentially dangerous delays.

Gainesville Fire Rescue Chief William Northcutt suggested a review called "process mapping" out of concern that 911 calls are currently processed at three times longer than he said is appropriate.

"We have had some issues over the years," Northcutt said. "They have committed to the process mapping that I have called for, so we are moving forward."

Northcutt in a recent memo outlined GFR's concerns with the center.

The Sun included information from the memo in a recent story about possible problems at the center that led to alleged response delays, improper dispatching and other errors that some officials said jeopardized the safety of the public and law enforcement officers.

Process mapping is a procedure in which every step in a process is noted and evaluated to find weaknesses or inefficiencies. A problem in one step has a domino effect down the line, so the aim is to correct the process where the flaws occur.

With the communications center, the mapping would begin when a 911 call first comes in and track the actions that follow through dispatching and communications when authorities are at the scene.

Both Northcutt and Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Ed Bailey said they believe process mapping is an appropriate first step to try to correct the problems they see at the communications center.

"Regardless of how a system is working, when you bring in someone for an examination of it, it can't hurt. You go into it for that thorough review, anticipating that you can always do things better," Bailey said. "From our perspective, it is a positive thing and we're looking for it coming to fruition."

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, whose agency manages and operates the center, defended the center's staff against what she termed "premature and unfair criticism." She said the staff does an excellent job under difficult circumstances.

Darnell said process mapping could have some benefits but added it also will appease the fire agencies.

"There is always a benefit to looking at things in a new way. The main reason we've agreed to do it is, if we don't, they will keep bringing it up, so let's just do it. Otherwise they will constantly say we didn't at least try it," Darnell said. "We are willing to try anything to put this thing to rest."

Simmering issues concerning the communications center became public last week when The Sun ran information from a memo by Ryan Lee, communications commander for the Communications Operations Bureau, in which he detailed several specific errors that he alleged could have jeopardized the safety of the public and a police officer.

Lee also called for greater training and for other measures to reduce errors.

Also included in the article was information from a Northcutt memo that outlined concerns. Among them was that a benchmark for a call processing time of 60 seconds on 90 percent of the calls was not being met. That is the time from when a call first comes in to when GFR begins rolling out of a station.

The time it takes to process a 911 call is a key point of contention and will be a focus of the process mapping.

Linda Thomas, manager of the technical services division, said the 60-second benchmark is unreasonable. She said call takers often must ask many questions to learn the nature and location of an incident, which can eat up time.

A study of dispatch centers across Florida done for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice indicates errors are not uncommon, said Maureen Tartaglione of Gainesville, a consultant on the study.

Alachua County's is among the highest ranked dispatch centers statewide and is one of the few accredited by the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, she said.

"As it turns out, Alachua County is the envy of most other counties in the state," Tartaglione said. "But that doesn't mean there aren't some problems there."

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