DAVID ROSMAN: 911 operators need money to answer calls quickly

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 | 4:25 p.m. CDT; updated 9:21 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 17, 2012

COLUMBIA — I have heard this before from students and friends who knew someone, who knew someone … you get the picture. Rumor control central at its best. Then it happened to me.

We had an “altercation” outside of our residence Sunday evening. One person ran a stop sign, and another had to hit his brakes to avoid an accident. Usually, this is the end of the story. But, this was a case of road rage, and there was a strong possibility that things would get out of hand. I went down to try to cool the situation.

Thinking the situation might escalate, I dialed 911. It was then I got the recording: "You have dialed 911. Do not hang up. Someone will be with you in a moment."

How can 911 be so busy that they cannot answer the telephone?

It is a case of the emergency operators not answering calls in a timely manner, putting life and property at great risk.

By this time, fewer than 10 minutes from the beginning of the confrontation, one of the drivers left. I hung up the telephone before the 911 operator answered, after having my first call dropped by my otherwise good carrier. I dialed the dispatch number, explained the story, gave the operator a license number and which way the driver had traveled and went back to watching “The Good Wife.” Then a knock at the door.

Three CPD officers came to investigate the 911 hang-up. It took from 8:03 to 8:07 to get an operator on the phone and a few more minutes for the men in blue to knock at the door. No problem. The cops had a job to do, and my hanging up was probably wrong. No, it was wrong.

We need to be extremely concerned about these delays in responding to an emergency call. In my case, it was a possible fight, but what if the caller had a heart attack or shots fired or a home or business on fire or home invasion? When seconds count, what then?

On a typical Sunday evening, Public Safety Joint Communications maintains a minimum staff of five: one supervisor, three dispatchers and one person to take our calls.

Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey notes that the number of complaints he has received concerning Joint Communications delays has increased and the county is aware of the situation. The problem? All emergency calls, whether to 911 or dispatch, are answered by Joint Communications. Its staffing has not changed since 1993. The system is at least 20 people short.

Then there is the loss of funding, which is caused by the loss of land-line telephones and the increase in cellphone use. So instead of receiving one or two calls about a fire or accident, Joint Communications might now receive 100 or more calls, and cellphones are not subject to the Joint Communications-related telephone tax.

The long-term solution? More money, more people and a bigger place to operate. The county has set up a Blue Panel Commission to work on an April 2013 ballot proposal for a sales tax increase for additional personnel and a new 20,000 square foot facility to be built on the Sheriff Department’s current campus. All in the name of public safety.

Why a sales tax? Everyone pays, including, as Carey told me, the “riff-raff” causing the problems, those visiting the county for Southeastern Conference sports and business, students and Boone citizens. The land-line taxes would then be eliminated.

Unfortunately, this is going to take a while with no immediate short-term solutions. This does not mean you should avoid calling 911 in an emergency. Call and hope the one person answering the phone at Joint Communications is not overly busy.

Public safety is one of the extremely important jobs conducted by local government. The tax that will be proposed should be supported by everyone, every politician, regardless of fiscal polarity or pledge not to raise taxes. Who would dare campaign against public safety?

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Jimmy Bearfield October 18, 2012 | 8:22 a.m.

"How can 911 be so busy that they cannot answer the telephone?"

Because 75 percent of the time -- -- they're wasting time fielding calls from morons asking for the weather forecast and other non-emergency information. Fining those callers would eliminate the need for a tax hike if the fine is steep enough.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 18, 2012 | 10:38 a.m.

With the city promising a bit over a million dollars in airport guarantee money and the county pitching in $500K if I remember correctly, I wonder why this tax is necessary? I have to prioritize my expenditures, why shouldn't government? I'm sure the sheriff is doing all he can with his money, but I think there's a bigger pot that can be looked at.

(Report Comment)
David Rosman October 20, 2012 | 11:08 p.m.

A short update to this story…

I had a conversation with Joseph Piper, Operations Manager of Public Safety Joint Communications concerning my specific ordeal.

My first attempt to contact PSJC lasted 30-seconds, and at 1:01 into the incident the Columbia Police were notified of a 911 hang-up. By the time I recalled 911, PSJC had tried to contact me and received my voice mail. At 3 minutes and 50 seconds, CPD was dispatched to my home. It took another nine minutes for CPD to arrive at my door.

The reason for the delays was not an influx of calls “from morons asking for the weather forecast and other non-emergency information,” as Jimmy Bearfield suggested. Piper said that there were two other disturbances being reported at the same time, one of the dispatchers was taking a well-deserved break and the supervisor had was working the telephone lines.

I agree with Mr. Bearfield that a fine should be imposed, but not on everyone who called the non-emergency line or 911 for the wrong reason. If there is a habitual calling of 911 for non-emergency, non-public safety issues, then a fine needs to be imposed.

However, Mr. Bearfield’s depiction of our citizens as “morons” is simply unacceptable and I believe he owns the citizens of Boone County an apology.

(Report Comment)

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