*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date.
COLUMBIA — The calls came in at an average of 160 per hour. During the busiest time of the day, they topped out at 277 in a single hour.
It was Feb. 21, the day the first of two major snowstorms blanketed Columbia.* Beth Taylor came to work at the Public Safety Joint Communications Center at 7 a.m. and was still answering back-to-back calls at 5 p.m.
“And can you tell me your name?” Taylor asked one of her callers.
“Alice, like 'Alice in Wonderland,' and I would just like to not be a danger to society.”
Alice had just surrendered her car to the snow’s grip in the middle of a Columbia intersection. She was more concerned about other drivers getting stuck trying to get around her car than she was about getting it back right away. So she wanted to alert the authorities to the situation.
Taylor answered hundreds of similar calls that day about vehicles stuck in ditches, in intersections and in the middle of streets. As she fielded the calls, she navigated five computer screens; monitored the radio channels of police, firefighters, emergency medical services and road crews in the field; and used software programs to fill out reports.
Employees of the center worked 12-hour shifts and logged a lot of overtime so that all eight of the center's dispatch stations could be active during the storm. Workers with headsets answered nonstop calls, pecked at keyboards and fed information to one another while responding to emergency responders in the field.
The stations are crammed together in the center's operations room. Layers of printers, fax machines, records and computer equipment line the walls. Makeshift desks and cubbyholes hold stacks of books and binders. Work-station desks designed to go up and down to accommodate sitting or standing are falling apart after years of constant wear and tear. Radio console equipment is obsolete, and some radio consoles are broken, forcing technicians to search eBay in an attempt to find parts.
Crowding, understaffing and failing equipment have long been problems at the Joint Communications Center. Officials hope to overhaul the system using proceeds of a three-eighths-cent sales tax that appears on the April 2 ballot. If voters approve the tax, it would generate an estimated $9.3 million per year.
A new building that would house both the 911 center and emergency management operations would cost an estimated $8.9 million alone, according to a report from a 911/Emergency Management Advisory Board that was appointed to study the operations' needs. Altogether, an overhaul of the systems — which also would include additional staff, new radio systems and other technological improvements — would cost about $22.5 million, the report says.
Space at a premium
With the swipe of a key, Joe Piper opens the door to the Joint Communications Center to reveal a stack of cots resting against the wall a few feet from the entrance. Clutter lines the walls all the way to the end of the hallway. There are boxes of training materials, police and emergency management records, pay sheets, fliers, printing paper and recycling.
Piper, interim operations manager for the center, said there's no way around the clutter; Joint Communications simply doesn't have enough room.
During situations like the snowstorm, staff members have no designated place to sleep when they need to stay the night, so they set up the cots wherever they can. Sometimes people end up sleeping on the floor.
Overnight bags and piles of clothes lie on the floor of the small locker room, alongside a mop and other custodial supplies. Piper shakes his head.
A desktop computer for online training programs takes up one wall of the small break-room. Staff are required to continue dispatch education after they finish initial training to maintain their certifications, but there isn’t enough space to set up a workstation solely for that purpose.
“We’ll stick a computer here, stick a computer there,” Piper said. “A person’s out here trying to complete required training, and you’ve got people out here trying to take a break. It’s just not really conducive to good training.”
Bulky file cabinets full of records dominate another wall in a hodge-podge office. Supplies are stuffed around the edges of the room. An icebox sits on top of a shelf near the cabinets.
“I’m a neat freak, and this just drives me nuts,” Piper said as he struggled to step around boxes, a paper-shredder and a desk. Supervisors, administrators and a public information officer have to share this office space, and Piper said they fight for it.
There is no specified space for collective training, so the crew uses whatever room it can find. Sometimes it’s the shared office; sometimes it’s Piper’s. His office acts as a conference room, too. It’s small, crowded by his desk and a round table with a few chairs.
The room wasn’t designed as an office, Piper said, gesturing toward a door in the corner. It leads to the building's heating and cooling system, which often acts up and requires regular tinkering that disrupts trainings and meetings.
Joint Communications has two electronic server rooms because there isn’t a room large enough to accommodate all the equipment. One server room is connected to the operations room, but the other is in the adjacent police station, a remote location forces a lot of back-and-forth trekking when repairs are necessary.
The server rooms should have nothing but radio and computer equipment, Piper said. Instead, staff have to maneuver around supplies and even around lightning groundings along the walls. That makes Piper nervous.
“Yeah, it works, but is this ideal?” he asked. “You want to be standing right here when lightning hits the whole antenna outside?”
The 911 center’s restroom also is in the Police Department.
“You’d like an arrangement where dispatchers can get up from their chair and they can go conveniently to the restroom and still be right there close by,” Piper said.
It’s an even farther walk to the Armory Sports and Recreation Center, where several 911 employees have desks in the basement because of the lack of space in the main center. The Armory also is where city and county officials and emergency personnel are supposed to meet and coordinate efforts during a disaster. The space doubles as a day care center that would be displaced by desks, computers and radio equipment if a catastrophe were to happen. Converting the space could take several hours.
Piper said the Armory isn’t ideal for an emergency management site, in part because its historical significance prohibits design changes. As it stands, though, there are no better options, he said.
Piper said the needs that would be addressed with the proposed sales tax are obvious.
“I think anybody taking the time to visit the center and understand its critical functions that would come and look and take the time to understand it would say, ‘Yeah, there’s a need here,’” Piper said.
Workload challenges small staff
The refrigerator in the cramped break room resembles a Jenga game of tote bags, plastic containers and thermoses containing staff lunches.
Employees often are told that they can't leave to get lunch, so they bring food to work with them instead. During the snowstorm, supervisor Suzanne Fred sat in front of seven monitors and ate her chicken pot pie between calls.
Piper said Joint Communications is sorely understaffed. It employs a full-time equivalent of 34.75 people, including administration, support and operations staff. Twenty-nine employees staff the center 24/7. Four are supervisors, and 25 work as call-takers or dispatchers. On a normal day, the minimum staff consists of one supervisor, one call-taker and three dispatchers.
Staff are supposed to work eight-hour shifts, but most put in significant overtime every week. Annual turnover is around 18 percent. The job can quickly cause burnout.
There are always trainees. Right now, four people are in training, and one position is vacant. About two of every five trainees don’t make it. Piper described the challenges new workers face.
In the operations room, employees are responsible for fourteen 911 lines, 27 non-emergency lines and multiple radio channels. They operate five different computer systems with several software applications and answer 911 calls at the same time. They're expected to do all of this with good customer service.
Piper said it takes about six months for a trainee to become competent in the operations room and about another six months before a worker feels comfortable. The lack of staff often forces call-takers to double as dispatchers, which means they have to juggle the responsibility of fielding residents’ 911 calls with that of dispatching calls and responding to radio traffic among police, firefighters and medical teams.
Even supervisors have to pitch in and answer phones when the call-takers are overwhelmed. That means they have to be paid overtime to do the administrative work they were hired to do.
It’s a difficult situation, Piper said. Taylor, the call-taker, agreed.
“The hardest thing?” Taylor said on the day of the snowstorm. “It’s days like this with a lot of people to handle, calls to take, and you can’t take care of it immediately, and they’re out there waiting.”
Supervisor Jodi Kamp has worked at Joint Communications for 12 years and said it is seriously understaffed. There’s no way to keep pace with the rising number of calls and emergency responders, she said.
“I love the aspects of the job, being there for people that need us,” Kamp said. “But it’s frustrating when you feel like you can’t give the caller 110 percent.”
What changes would be made?
If voters approve the 911 tax, officials would begin planning for a new 911 and emergency management center on county-owned property near the Boone County Jail northeast of the city.
Piper said that in talking with administrators of other 911 operations with relatively new buildings, most said they wish they would have planned more space for storage and expansion. That's why the tax proposal includes enough money for a building that would accommodate the city and county's needs well into the future.
Although it's too early to establish a timetable, city and county officials hope to have the new building in place and to begin hiring additional staff as soon as possible. It would be at least six months after the April election before any tax money would begin to flow in.
Preliminary plans for the new center and staff include:
Piper said a community of this size deserves and needs a stronger 911 and emergency management operation.
“This is Columbia, this is Boone County,” he said. “We are a Class 1 county. Our community deserves better than what we currently have.”
When 911 calls pile up at the offices of Columbia/Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications, call-takers and dispatchers can’t communicate quickly enough with callers.
To comply with National Fire Protection Association standards, 911 dispatchers must answer at least 95 percent of calls in 15 seconds or less and 99 percent of calls in 40 seconds or less.
For the past seven months, Columbia/Boone County’s Public Safety Joint Communications has not met this goal.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.