911 dispatchers in Texas get more detailed

New system will allow 911 call-takers to ask more and better questions

By Brennan K. Peel
Abilene Reporter-News

ABILENE,  Texas — Abilene on Monday will launch an emergency medical dispatch system designed to send the appropriate resources to each medical emergency called in to 911.

The new system will allow 911 call-takers to ask more and better questions to determine the severity of the medical emergencies and simultaneously to dispatch the resources. "Every medical emergency call will still be responded to quickly, but we'll be able to send the right resources depending on the severity of the emergency," Fire Chief Ken Dozier said Thursday.

Currently, both Metro-Care and the Abilene Fire Department - which provide first-responder service in the city - respond to every medical emergency call. But because there's no system in place to determine the severity of the incident - a nosebleed, for example, compared with cardiac arrest - the Fire Department sends a fully staffed company, something Dozier likens to "sending the cavalry."

With the new system, residents will see two major changes:

• Callers to 911 will be asked more detailed questions so the proper resources will be sent.

• Abilene firefighters will respond to some less critical emergencies in "cold" mode, which means without flashing lights and blaring sirens.

Abilene firefighters have responded to medical emergency calls since 1985, Dozier said. In the fall of 2010, the Abilene City Council appointed a committee to look at the city's role in providing first-responder care. One of the committee's recommendations was to develop the new emergency dispatch system. The system originally was scheduled to launch in May, but scheduling conflicts between people working on the launch pushed back the start date.

"We got the software installed, but we had to have the company's IT people here at the same time as our IT people. And with people on vacation and so on, waiting on different people to be available for different parts of the project took more time than we thought," Greg Goettsch of the Abilene Fire Department said last month. Goettsch served as the project manager for the transition to the new dispatch system.

Last month, Goettsch said it could take a year before the new dispatch system is fully implemented.

The new system is the ProQA system from Priority Dispatch based in Salt Lake City. The Abilene City Council approved the $127,000 price tag for the new software last autumn. Goettsch said that once the system is in place, Abilene residents will see an improvement in the quality of care provided by the city's emergency responders.

"This allows us to increase our service, without having to increase staffing. We'll be better at sending the appropriate equipment based on the calls received," he said. "If someone calls in with a skinned knee, they're not going to get the equivalent of an emergency room sent to their front door. And by not tying up all our resources on minor calls, they'll be free for the more critical calls that come in."

Dispatchers in the city's communications hub have had dozens of hours of training to prepare for the new system.

Police Chief Stan Standridge said that while call-takers will be asking more questions and seeking more details, they'll simultaneously be dispatching the appropriate resources to a call. Callers shouldn't worry that first responders will be delayed because callers are asked more questions, he said.

In 2011, the Abilene Fire Department received 15,623 calls to 911. Of those, 11,610 - nearly 75 percent - were for medical reasons.

Goettsch said other fire departments that have switched to an EMD system have reported reductions up to a 30 percent in the number of medical calls.

He said AFD expects to see up to a 17 percent reduction in medical calls during the system's first year.

The EMD system was developed in 1973 and since has been refined multiple times, Dozier said. It is used in many other communities, including Amarillo, around the Dallas-Fort Worth area and across South Texas.

Staff writer Greg Kendall-Ball contributed to this report.

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