Merged 911 still has 'bugs,' problems in handling of calls, responses
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County spent more than $10 million merging their 911 centers and upgrading technology over the past decade, but emergency responders and observers say problems persist.
County officials defend the system, saying technological advances moved it from the Dark Ages to the 21st century. Some public safety officials express concern over how the county treats the city in the combined system, though.
Several high-profile incidents involving people who died after calling 911 mar the advances and show problems in how calls are handled and in the way police, firefighters and paramedics respond.
The most recent incident involves two Pittsburgh police officers who answered an “unknown trouble” call from a Larimer woman and left her home without talking to her. Police found the caller, Ka'Sandra Wade, 33, dead in her home the next day. City and county officials are investigating the incident.
“I will say I think they've improved enormously in the last 20 years,” said Louise Comfort, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Disaster Management. “They've got professional equipment. They've got training programs. They are operating within the letter of the law.
“But they are still missing cases. I think it's that extra step, that extra follow-up. It could be a follow-up phone call: Is everything all right? Did the officers arrive? Is the situation resolved?”
County Emergency Services Director Alvin Henderson said operators make follow-up calls when situations, such as a disconnected 911 call, warrant them.
Henderson said employees participate in extensive training and the combined 911 center in Point Breeze has four staffers devoted to quality assurance. He refused to release quality assurance reports, saying they contained confidential information about employees and callers.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which regulates 911 centers across the state, did not respond to repeated calls and emails.
Some tension remains between city and county officials since they merged 911 systems and centers in 2005 after years of debate. Ray DeMichiei, a former city operations supervisor in its dispatch center, said he initially supported the merger.
“We kind of lost our individuality,” said DeMichiei, deputy director of emergency management and homeland security for the city. “If I had my druthers, I'd take our 911 service back tomorrow.”
Standardization that puts Pittsburgh on the same level as smaller municipalities does not work, he said. The city accounts for 38 percent of all calls into the 911 center.
“You can't come up with 130 different ways of doing things, but the city of Pittsburgh needs a different way of doing things because we are a city,” DeMichiei said.
Henderson and Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss said the city and county talk continually about improvements.
“It might be their center, but it's our information, it's our 911 calls from our municipality,” Huss said. “It's in their best interest to work with us.”
Officials made changes after some deadly incidents:
• In 2009, a 911 operator failed to tell Pittsburgh police that Richard Poplawski had guns in his Stanton Heights home when she sent officers there. Poplawski killed three officers. The 911 center instituted guidelines for asking callers about weapons and communicating answers to police.
• Miscommunication between the 911 center and paramedics contributed to the 2010 death of Curtis Mitchell, who waited for 30 hours during a blizzard for an ambulance that never arrived. The city and county in November settled a lawsuit from Mitchell's family for $280,000.
• A malfunction in June 2010 changed the street address in the 911 computer of a baby with a medical emergency and delayed paramedics by seven minutes. Jordyn Anderson, 3 weeks old, of Crafton Heights died. County officials said they found no evidence to suggest the delay led to her death. A committee has been working to eliminate duplicate street names in the city and county.
Henderson and a spokeswoman for the union that represents 911 workers said a $10 million computer-aided dispatch system installed in 2010 improved operations. The system has expansive mapping that permits dispatchers to immediately locate the origin of landline calls and narrow wireless calls to within 300 yards. It also offers a series of prompts that call takers use to ask critical questions.
But those involved report problems in communication among call takers, dispatchers and responders.
“They don't get the precise information,” said Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. “It's ‘I wish I would have known that; I wish they would've asked that.'”
Anthony Weinmann, president of Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics Local 1, said the 911 center can improperly assign high priority to calls.
“Some of these minor ailments are becoming high priority calls, and we have to send units to them,” Weinmann said. “We get tied up on minor calls.”
County spokeswoman Amie Downs said 911 workers follow state and national standards in asking questions and getting answers to responders.
Huss, who oversees city fire, police and EMS and once served as director of Cambria County's 911 center, said responders sometimes deflect blame to the 911 center and must realize they share responsibility for a call.
“I think sometimes we've been critical of them, and we need to be sure of what we're doing, too,” he said.
Huss is among those reviewing the police officers' response to Wade's 911 call. Officers Louis Schweitzer and Lance Hoyson spoke to Wade's boyfriend, who later admitted fatally shooting her. He then killed himself.
City police are moving toward getting readouts from 911 calls sent directly to computer terminals in vehicles.
“Once we get it up and running, officers will be able to see all the information the call taker gets,” said Deputy Police Chief Paul Donaldson. “They'll also see what action is pending. Right now, only supervisor cars have that capability.”
Henderson noted that PEMA audits the 911 center every two years.
“If we weren't doing what we're supposed to, PEMA would not approve our center as they have,” he said.