COLUMBIA — The woman was crying and obviously distressed as she wandered along the street and into the intersection of Providence and Green Meadows roads.

Megan Stromer, 24, who was in her car waiting for the traffic light to change, saw her as she approached. The woman knocked on the hood of Stromer's car.

"I'll admit I did not do the good citizen thing and ask her what was wrong," Stromer said, but she was alone in the car and new to town.

Getting no response from Stromer, the woman walked on, knocking on the hoods of other cars and trying to flag down cars passing her by. Neither strategy worked. So the woman continued walking down the road through traffic.

Stromer decided to help the woman in another way and called 911. After being placed on hold for 1 minute, Stromer was able to talk to a call-taker. She provided the best description she could of the woman and explained where she was, what she was doing and where she seemed to be going. It turned out the woman had crashed her car, and first responders were looking for her. The call-taker thanked Stromer for her help.

That's one of a fraction of calls that Boone County Joint Communications took last year that put it out of compliance with national standards for 911 call response.

Of the 82,969 calls joint communications processed last year, 3.28 percent took more than one minute to answer. Most calls — 94.43 percent — were answered in 40 seconds or less; 84.74 percent of all calls in 2015 were answered in 15 seconds or less, according to joint communications records. Those times fall short of National Fire Protection Association standards that state 95 percent of calls received on emergency lines should be answered in 15 seconds or less, and 99 percent of calls should be answered in 40 seconds or less.

Joe Piper, Boone County Joint Communications Center deputy director, said he hopes those response times will improve when joint communications moves into the new Boone County Emergency Communications Center at the end of this year. The center will provide more space and equipment for 911 call-takers and dispatchers, Piper said. The center will have 21 dispatch stations, compared to the eight it has now.

With more work stations at the new center, joint communications plans to increase the number of call-takers working per shift, Piper said. Right now, the minimum number of people working at one time is five. Only one or two of those are call-takers; the rest are dispatchers. That is "nowhere near enough" to provide proper service, he said.

In the new 27,915-square-foot center at 2145 E. County Drive, which is already occupied by the Boone County Office of Emergency Management, Piper said he hopes to have three call-takers working every shift.

"We want to grow where every shift, every hour of the day, we always have a minimum of three call-takers on duty," he said. The center will increase that number if needed.

New hires

The Boone County Joint Communications Center, with an eye on its new space, has increased the number of call-takers and dispatchers it can hire to 49. Piper said there are 33 employed by the center right now. After a recent hiring process, he expects to add five more.

But having 33 — or 49 — employees doesn't mean they're all working at the same time, Piper said. The center is limited by the number of workstations available, minus one. The additional station is needed for shift changes so not one second goes by without someone monitoring calls and the dispatch.

Each position — call-taker, fire and EMS dispatcher, police dispatcher — requires about five people to staff it 24/7, Piper said. Increasing the number of call-takers on duty at one time to three would then require the center to employ 15 call-takers.

In addition to the 21 workstations, there are five more specifically set aside for training new call-takers and dispatchers, Piper said. New employees will be trained at mock workstations, using the same systems, just offline. Now, trainees learn each system separately, Piper said, never experiencing how the systems interact until they start work.

The trainees are "going to be better prepared when they are put into the real room," he said. "That's going to help us a lot."

These potential improvements, Piper said, will hopefully avoid situations like the one Pat Etienne, 83, was put in on Oct. 2, a day she said she won't forget.

Etienne lives in south Columbia less than a mile from Fire Station 7. Her 12-year-old great-grandson had recently moved in with her and her daughter, and Etienne stayed home with him while her daughter went to work. That night, Etienne couldn't find the boy when it was time for dinner. And then she did: He had hanged himself under the raised screened-in porch at the back of her house.

She said she dialed 911 but was put on hold. Twice. Etienne had to wait 1 minute and 26 seconds to speak to a call-taker, according to joint communications call logs. Once the call-taker answered, they remained on the line with her for 1 minute and 26 seconds. All together, from the time she called to the time she hung up, Etienne spent about 3 minutes on the phone.

But it felt like five minutes to Etienne, starkly different from the experience she'd had in Los Angeles years ago when she had to dial the emergency number after her husband had a heart attack. That time, emergency responders were at her house in what was mere seconds. She had to hang up on the call-taker to let the police in.

"It was the most painful experience of my life," Etienne said about last year's experience in Columbia.

Her great-grandson did not survive.

Piper said he feels terrible about Etienne's experience. "That is a clear example that highlights why we're trying to increase the number of call-takers," he said. "Hopefully, we won't have those instances or at least as many. 

"We have a realistic goal" of meeting the NFPA standards, Piper said. "We just don't have enough call-takers right now."

Etienne describes the response on that terrible night as "the most inadequate," though she doesn't blame the person who answered the call at joint communications. Nor does she blame the first responders who came blasting down the street as soon as she was able to actually have a conversation with a dispatcher.

She definitely thinks the system needs improving.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

  • I'm on the Public Health and Safety team for fall 2016 and studying print and digital journalism and environmental science. You can reach me at katiepohlman@gmail.com or via phone at 301-529-9911.

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