9OYS Investigates: New insight into city’s problem-riddled 911 system
Dispatcher says locator screen wasn't working during emergency call
Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) – They’re the first ones you talk to when you call 911: the dispatchers who get the help you need during an emergency. However, some say they can’t perform as well now, because the brand new equipment dispatchers now use does not work properly.
Areas outside the city got the new digital system in late May – an upgrade to the previous analog one – and the city trashed the old one. What city leaders didn’t plan: a bunch of problems – problems that may have led to the death of a 10-year-old girl.
City Manager Mike Letcher blames the death of the girl at least partly on operator error, rather than the system changeover. In the June 1st incident, the dispatcher repeated the wrong address and sent crews miles away from the location of the caller.
“The incident with the 10-year-old girl is the issue of operator error that can happen in any situation and with any dispatch operation throughout the country,” Letcher told KGUN9 News. “I took disciplinary action termination with that operator.”
But 9 On Your Side discovered the story may not be that cut and dry, as indicated by what one dispatcher wrote to city leaders: “I was horrified but not surprised to learn that our Emergency Communications Center probably contributed to the death of a 10-year-old girl on June 1st … In one instant, we have eliminated the safeguards we built with experience over thirty years. The equipment itself is a failure – too unreliable for the critical work we do.”
That dispatcher, too, was fired, but Letcher maintains it was because of an unrelated issue.
Carla Reece, who held multiple positions at the dispatch center for 13 years including as supervisor, gives crucial insight about that initial call.
“There are glitches reported that I’m not in the loop to speak. The only thing that I’m aware of is that the dispatcher did not get that automatic location screen on that first call,” Reece told KGUN9 News.
The city admits there are stacks of discrepancy reports about the new system, some of them related to equipment failure and technical glitches. Others have expressed concern about the reduced ability of supervisors to monitor the system – tools that Reece says are crucial.
“It’s important that these tools assist the dispatcher in getting appropriate help as expediently as possible … When multiple tools are failing you, it becomes very frustrating to the dispatcher,” Reece said.
Ron Lewis, the city’s general services director, emphasizes that Tucson’s response time is well below the national average – and they have resolved the most serious problems with the new system.
“The majority of those have all been taken care of. The serious ones were taken care of within the first few days, and in some cases the first few hours,” Lewis said, adding that Qwest, the company that installed and maintains the system, has been at the dispatch center to troubleshoot during the 60-day transition.
But Councilmember Steve Kozachik said the troubleshooting isn’t necessarily a good sign: “The Qwest people are so concerned that they have overstaffed the 911 dispatch floor. They’re trying to fix the problems.”