Saturday, October 28, 2000

Volume raises fear of delays

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As Tristate 911 dispatchers juggle more and more calls for help, the bottom line is this: emergency calls might not be answered as quickly as callers would like.

        In Cincinnati, calls for emergency help increased about 9 percent during the first eight months of this year — to almost 370,000 calls, compared with fewer than 340,000 for the same period in 1999.

[photo] A national increase in 911 calls has been reflected in the Tristate, including at the Hamilton County Communications Center.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        The biggest reason: cell phones. It's common for dozens of witnesses to call in the same traffic wreck within five minutes after it happens.

        “That's what pumps it,” said Ron Harbaugh, director of the center that takes calls for Cincinnati's police officers and firefighters. “Everybody's got a phone on them, at their house, in their car.”

        Officials, of course, do not discourage people from dialing 911. But the jump in calls is a growing concern, locally and nationally. It's made worse by increasing problems finding enough people who want to handle 911 calls.

        In Cincinnati, nine of 42 dispatcher slots - or 21 percent - are currently open.

        “It's like going to McDonald's — if they don't have enough people, you're going to stand in line longer,” said Dave Bubb of the Association of Communications Professionals Inc., an industry trade group based in South Daytona, Fla. “But we can't have people waiting in line. We just can't.”

        In Cincinnati, about 93 percent of calls are answered within 20 seconds. That compares with more than 95 percent for the same period in 1999.

        The difficulty in attracting enough employees is nationwide. “It's holidays, it's Sundays,” Mr. Harbaugh said. “And of course, there's the stress.”

        Cincinnati 911 staff answer hundreds of calls every day, some from people so panicked it's difficult to discern their emergencies.

        All that adds up to the same kind of recruiting problems other public-service jobs have now — fewer people want the headaches and burnout when they can get decent-paying jobs with less hassle in the current good economy.

        At the same time, dispatch supervisors don't expect calls to decline, particularly with cell phone use continuing to increase.

        The nation's 90 million cellular users made 110,000 calls a day to 911 in 1999, according to the Cellular Telephone Industry of America.

        That's more than double the 49,000 cellular calls a day in 1994 and up from 59,000 a day in 1996.

        And officials are bracing for another onslaught — the rise in calls from on-board systems in cars. General Motors alone produced more than a million vehicles this year with systems like GM's OnStar, which require just the push of one button to call for help.

        Some vehicles also are being produced with technology that automatically calls for help when the car gets involved in an accident, Mr. Bubb said.

        “I see that as potentially a bigger problem than cell phones,” he said. The same quantity problems trouble Northern Kentucky, where dispatching is spread across seven cen ters in the three counties.

        Some have responded with talks of consolidation. Campbell County officials are completing a deal to merge the current three centers into one in Newport. Boone County consolidated its centers years ago.

        Merger is a perennial topic in Kenton County, but talks have made little progress. Officials in each of the three agencies — in Covington, Erlanger and Kenton County — have always wanted to keep control.

        In the Kenton County center, 911 calls jumped 3 percent between 1998 and last year, from 38,448 to 39,850.

        In Warren County, 911 calls jumped from 10,558 in 1998 to 11,075 last year, with 8,409 this year through September. Those figures include all of the county except for Springboro/Clearcreek, Lebanon and Franklin police.

        The Hamilton County Communications Center will take in more than 900,000 calls this year. The number jumps every year, but officials aren't sure exactly how much.

        That's why the agency is in the midst of a study, with help from Cincinnati Bell, to determine exactly how busy they will get.

        Being clear on that will help operations director Greg Wenz make a case for more help.

        “It used to be a caller reporting an accident would have to get off the highway, find a pay phone and call,” he said. “Not everybody would do that. Now, any kind of wreck on the interstate and we'll get 40, 50 or 60 calls in five minutes.

        “The numbers are just incredible.”

       David Eck contributed to this report.

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