One of the most often asked questions from the public is, “Why is the call-taker asking so many questions? Please, just send me help!” I hope to be able to answer this question by providing an explanation of our 9-1-1 call processing procedures.

How many 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers are on-duty?

The Erie County 9-1-1 Center has determined our minimum staffing levels utilizing industry standard formulas, based on call volume versus time-of-day and day-of-week, to be eight call-takers and dispatchers—otherwise known as Telecommunicators, plus a shift commander on every eight-hour shift. On every shift, there are two 9-1-1 call-takers, three law enforcement dispatchers, three EMS / fire dispatchers, and a shift commander. The 9-1-1 calls will always be routed or assigned to the two dedicated 9-1-1 call-takers. There are instances, due to heavy call volumes, that the two call-takers are not available due to being on another 9-1-1 call. When this occurs, the shift commander will assign one of the dispatchers to answer the overflow 9-1-1 calls.

 

What is the 9-1-1 call waiting queue?

Overflow 9-1-1 calls enter the “9-1-1 call waiting queue” and the caller will hear a pre-recorded message stating, “You have reached Erie County 9-1-1, do not hang up! I repeat, do not hang up! Your call will be answered in approximately twenty seconds.” The first available call-taker will be presented with the 9-1-1 call in the order it was received. We all understand the sense of urgency when someone dials 9-1-1, and no one wants or expects to receive an audio recording. The public has an expectation that their 9-1-1 call will be answered by a live person, a qualified 9-1-1 call-taker. And they are right! However, the truth is that there are forty-eight dedicated 9-1-1 trunk lines from the selective router (telephone provider) to the Erie County 9-1-1 Center. This means, at any given time, forty-eight 9-1-1 calls may be received without the 9-1-1 caller receiving a busy signal. It would be cost prohibitive, and fiscally irresponsible, to staff forty-eight call-takers per eight-hour shift for occurrences of heavy call volume. Our methodology is simple. We prefer the 9-1-1 call to enter a call waiting queue with the caller hearing a voice recording, advising them that they have reached the Erie County 9-1-1 Center. The only other option would be if we were to reduce our dedicated 9-1-1 trunk capacity. The problem with this option is during heavy call volumes, the 9-1-1 caller may hear a busy signal. Therefore, the caller would have to hang up and redial 9-1-1. What if the caller only had one chance to dial 9-1-1? In our professional opinion, this is not a viable option.

What happens when you dial 9-1-1?

When you dial 9-1-1 from any landline, wireless, or IP device (internet phone service), your 9-1-1 call is selectively routed by the provider through dedicated 9-1-1 trunk lines to the Erie County 9-1-1 Center. Your call is then assigned to the first available call-taker, as determined by a call routing scheme in our phone system called Automatic Call Distribution. The 9-1-1 system detects how many call-takers are available to answer incoming 9-1-1 calls, and then assigns the call to a specific 9-1-1 call answering position.

The call-taker answers the incoming call with our standard greeting, “9-1-1, where is your emergency?” The first series of questions, referred to as case entry questions, are to obtain the location, call back phone number, and nature of the emergency. Let’s take a deeper look as to why the questions are asked and in what order: 1) “Where is your emergency?” We need to obtain the physical location of the emergency. As an example, you may be calling 9-1-1 for a family member who may be at a different location than you; 2) “What City, Borough, or Township?” There are duplicate addresses and street names throughout Erie County. As an example, there are ten Chestnut Streets and numerous Main Streets within small boroughs; 3) “What is your call back telephone number?” If we are disconnected, for whatever reason, we need to be able to re-establish communication with the 9-1-1 caller; 4) “What is your emergency?” Do you need an ambulance, fire department, or law enforcement response? 4

 

What is ProQA (Priority Dispatch) and why is it important?

Once the case entry questions have been asked, the call-taker will select the appropriate dispatch protocol (EMS or Fire), and will begin asking a series of questions to determine what level of response (resources) are required for this type of incident. Our dispatch protocols are a nationally recognized and adopted system, and are commonly referred to as “ProQA” call interrogation software. Every call-taker and dispatcher has attended a forty-hour course of instruction and been certified by the National Academy of Emergency Dispatch. Our on-staff medical director, Dr. Christopher Cammarata, has reviewed and approved our medical protocols. This protocol system is interfaced with our CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system. The question-answer matrix of ProQA automatically selects the appropriate response determinate, and the CAD incident is sent to the respective dispatch position. While the 9-1-1 call-taker continues with call interrogation to obtain additional, amplifying information, the dispatcher has dispatched the appropriate resources to the incident location. In some instances, the treatment of the patient will begin at the time of the 9-1-1 call, rather than waiting for first responders to arrive. As an example, step-by step CPR instructions may be given by the call-taker for a willing bystander to begin CPR until EMS or first responders arrive.

For fire-related responses, this protocol system provides versatility to the fire chief to specify a certain response on an incident type. A structure fire may be a single-family residential, but then again, may be a multi-residential apartment building. The fire chief can specify through response recommendations which mutual aid departments are to respond and what equipment on either a first, second, or third alarm assignment. Based on the fire ProQA questions and answers, the event type or call determinate dictates the level of response.

A law enforcement response is handled differently by our dispatch center, through a separate set of dispatch protocols defined by our agency. Erie County 9-1-1 initially purchased the law enforcement protocol set from Priority Dispatch, but we discovered the questions contained in this protocol system did not meet the needs of Erie County 9-1-1 or our user agencies. Erie County 9-1-1 staff in conjunction with the law enforcement advisory committee is in the final stages of implementing an internally developed protocol system. Based on event type (i.e., shooting, theft, loud music), defined questions will aid the call-taker in obtaining pertinent information to be relayed to responding police officers. Upon successful implementation, we will work with our law enforcement agencies to refine this protocol system.

In the next issue of our Public Safety Newsletter, we will focus on dispatch fundamentals. I hope this article helps provide a better understanding of our 9-1-1 call processing. If you have any questions or would like to comment, please do not hesitate to contact us by calling our office at 814-451-7920.

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