Salt Lake City’s police chief acknowledges that city dispatchers’ scripted call-taking protocol could use some tweaks.
Fire and medical dispatchers have been using Priority Dispatch — a scripted approach to taking 9-1-1 calls — for years. But when the city consolidated its dispatchers into one center, police dispatchers, who were used to having more freedom in questioning callers, had to get on board with Priority — which requires sticking with a standard text.
The change has proved frustrating for some dispatchers, as well as callers already caught up in an emergency.
When someone calls and says, “I was just robbed by a white man with a gun,” the dispatcher — early on, according to the script — still has to ask if the caller saw a gun, Chief Chris Burbank said.
“You don’t have to ask that … ” Burbank noted. “I’ve heard firsthand [dispatchers say] ‘I have to ask you these questions, even though it’s already been answered.’ ”
Salt Lake City resident George Chapman, who is a regular at community council meetings, has been hearing that same frustration. At a Capitol Hill Community Council meeting earlier this year, a resident said that his daughter was in a Salt Lake City Dollar Store while it was being robbed, and the dispatcher gave her “the runaround,” Chapman said.
Salt Lake City, which also handles calls for Sandy, is not the only entity in the valley trying to smooth these issues.
There has been debate about Priority in light of a proposed merger between all of the Salt Lake Valley’s dispatch centers, said Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, who sees both sides of the argument.
His Unified Police Department uses a traditional approach, but they are soon to be married to the new system. UPD currently contracts with Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) — which uses Priority and answers calls for much of the county — to answer 9-1-1 calls and transfer them to UPD dispatchers.
UPD eventually intends to completely merge with VECC, to cut out the need to transfer calls.“As part of the anticipated merger, [there have been] significant conversations about VECC operations … and within that, Priority Dispatch was raised,” Winder said. “Do we want to use it in that environment? What are the pros and cons?”
Salt Lake City’s center also could merge with VECC, Winder said.
VECC has been using and training dispatchers on Priority for more than a year, and the director, John Morgan, is curious to know what professionals think. He has sent questionnaires to dispatchers, officers, chiefs and members of the public for their feedback.
“What we’re working through … is making sure that the questions being asked are the relevant questions,” Morgan said. For instance, if 90 percent of people who had their car broken into find the smashed window after the fact, and therefore would not have a suspect description, that would be reason to move questions about a suspect down on the script, Morgan said.
Dispatchers have set scripts for different kinds of police calls — burglaries, suspicious persons, etc. However, if the nature of the call changes as the caller relays more information, dispatchers can swap in a different line of questioning.
That standardization has its strengths, Burbank said, such as improved accountability.
When dispatchers were free to field calls the way they wanted to, and a complaint came in, the department would have to review the tape and ask the dispatchers why they asked certain questions — and why not others, Burbank said. Priority, on the other hand, creates a consistent standard.
“The only reviews conducted prior were based on complaints; that’s what spurred a review,” said Scott Freitag, who oversees the Salt Lake City dispatch center. Nowadays, the center reviews every call taker, and from March 2013 to March 2014, the center conducted about 7,500 of them. “The overall compliance report for the entire bureau was 98 percent,” Freitag said.
Salt Lake City Deputy Fire Chief Brian Dale recalls a time when, before the fire department adopted Priority in 2001, a 20-year dispatcher wound up sending only one unit to a 3-alarm warehouse fire. With the 2002 Winter Olympics approaching, Dale said they needed a better system, and Priority has been just that.
The results have been affirming. The fire department has personnel dispatched to high-priority calls within 60 seconds of the call coming in, almost every time, Dale said.
Burbank also pointed out that the police department is still hitting their marks for how fast officers should be sent out.
As a bureau-wide average, the Salt Lake City dispatchers have a unit on the way within 48 seconds, with the police department averaging 55 seconds — which is normal, since police need more information than firefighters do before responding, Freitag said.
Still, the dispatch center is always updating its protocols in response to feedback and anticipates another update to the Priority software in August, Freitag added.