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Austin 911 operators effectively field calls, but audit finds gaps in dispatching overall

Thursday, February 27, 2020 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Operators field roughly a million calls for emergency services in Austin a year.

A new city report says those operators do a serviceable job of answering that glut of calls, but found a disconnect between those calls and the delivery of crucial services.

There are a lot of reasons for that, according to the Office of the City Auditor’s analysis of six years of call data from October 2013 to July 2019. That audit was discussed Wednesday at a meeting of the city’s Audit and Finance Committee.

For one, the three departments using call centers – the Austin Police Department, Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services – don’t uniformly measure their quality assurance, making an audit comparing response and dispatch times difficult.

Part of that divergence is intrinsic: An operator fielding a 911 call intended for AFD won’t be asking a caller for a suspect description or the medical condition of a possible patient, for example. But the departments measure response time in seconds or minutes or even a rate when it comes to answering the most urgent calls for services. The audit shows AFD and EMS response times didn’t accurately reflect wait times from a caller’s perspective, because they didn’t properly account for the transfer time it took to transfer a caller to an operator.

The audit also shows the three departments didn’t always meet their dispatch goals in terms of timeliness. While the departments met the national benchmark for answering emergency calls, all told, APD, AFD and EMS met 14 of their 24 total performance targets in 2018 for dispatch timeliness.

Andrew Keegan with the city auditor’s office says a lot of that lag between call and dispatch has to do with time and geography.

“If the call comes in at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, and they have to go to South Austin … or travel on 35 or any of the highways, that’s necessarily going to take longer than if they have to respond to a call at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, just because of traffic and people on the roads.”

Still, District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said the audit highlights the need to improve those response times and make more uniform metrics when appropriate.

“Meeting those metrics is important, but also making sure they’re the right ones is important,” he said. “So my hope is that we can get … operations streamlined a little more, so we can both measure accurately what a citizen experiences when they call 911 and making sure those response times are significant.”

Flannigan says overall, Austin benefits from having its 911 services under the same umbrella, but the report does suggest the city’s 911 operators could be better prepared for an event that could cause a major disruption to the services themselves.

The city’s main call center didn’t properly train for a major outage caused by an internet outage or even an outbreak of the flu. On top of that, none of the three separate departments had appropriate training in the event of an emergency outage, Keegan says.

“They had plans … but they didn’t fully train staff on what to do in a disruption,” he said. “So we look at it from kind of the risk perspective: If you haven’t been trained on how to respond in a certain situation, the chances of you responding correctly or following the plan correctly are reduced.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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