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Director says city’s 911 system needs more staff, better technology

Tuesday, February 8, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The manager of the City of Austin’s 911 system says she needs 25 more full-time call operators. Emergency Communications Manager Marcia Brooks also says the current 911 system is incapable of providing accurate call data that city officials need to analyze the emergency response system.


Brooks delivered that news to the city’s Public Safety Commission on Monday. As part of her presentation, Brooks and Deputy Chief Information Officer Paul Hopingardner also stressed the importance of developing 911 technologies.


“Today’s calls are routed across the traditional telephone systems and, as most of you know, that technology is approximately 40 years old,” said Hopingardner.


News of the shortage came as commission Vice Chair Mike Levy asked Brooks what 911 might look like in a perfect world. She responded by asking for 25 more operators.


“We expect that with additional annexations and additional growth of the city that our call volume will go up,” she said. “We have exhausted all of the initiatives in terms of driving our call volume down or to non-emergency (operators).”


The city currently employs 79 full time workers at its 911 call center. After some quick math, Levy put the understaffing at 40 percent. According to Brooks, there has been no increase in 911 operators in 10 years.


After the hearing, commission Chair Michael Lauderdale told In Fact Daily that the staffing shortage was a concern. “That’s a substantial shortfall there and I would say that we’ll look at that more,” he said.


“These are difficult economic times,” he added. “But that’s a critical shortage it would appear to me based on what we heard here today.”


Lauderdale then laid out what he saw as the commission’s plan. “We’ll be asking police officers, we’ll be asking fire, we’ll be asking EMS, what is the situation? How well do the call takers handle that? Are we wasting resources … by having overwhelming deployment on something that is not needed? Because I think we want to scare up the resources from somewhere.”


Questions about the statistics surfaced as Brooks went over data in her presentation. Levy noted that he was “under the impression that (with) the switch to another computer system, you all don’t have the ability to get the data that you want for adequate, accurate measurement.”


After Brooks confirmed his suspicions, she told the commission that the city expects to install a system that would furnish better data sometime this spring. Levy then asked if the 911 data was as accurate as Brooks would like.


“I would say that the new system should be a lot more accurate,” she said.

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