New Ariz. dispatch center makes major strides

Technical, staffing problems largely addressed, officials say

By Veronica Cruz
Arizona Daily Star

TUSCON, Ariz. — Nearly a year after the city's troubled 911 communications center was handed off to the Tucson Fire Department, officials have worked on fixes to technical glitches, increased staffing levels and boosted staff morale.

"We took care of the big things, but we also listened to the little things and took care of the little things," said Assistant Fire Chief Joe Gulotta.

Among the major issues facing the 911 call center were technical malfunctions and dropped calls caused when the city switched to a new 911 system in May 2011.

The locations of incoming calls failed to display on dispatchers' screens and supervisors were unable to monitor calls for accuracy, factors which, along with human errors, may have contributed to the death of a 10-year-old girl a few days after the transition to the new program.

Dispatchers began speaking out about their displeasure with the new system, understaffing and morale, and the mayor and council took up the issues at an August 2011 meeting. In mid-August last year, oversight of the communications center was transferred to the Tucson Fire Department from the city's General Services Department with only a day's notice.

The Fire Department identified three major areas to improve, including technical, managerial/supervisory and workplace issues.

The department worked with the contractor, CenturyLink, to create fixes to reduce the delay in location information showing up on dispatchers' screens.

When a person calls 911, the call goes to the 911 call center, and the location information is routed to Denver and then back to the local center. Before the switch to the new system, the call and the location info were sent to the dispatcher at the same time, Gulotta said.

With the new system, the location information was still arriving at the same time, but the calls were reaching dispatchers faster, which made it seem delayed, he said.

CenturyLink was able to reduce that delay by about half the time, according to a September 2011 memo from the Fire Department updating the mayor and City Council about the communications center improvements.

Another issue dispatchers were concerned about was the inability to monitor other calls for accuracy.

With the old system, anybody could jump on and off other people's calls and listen in on them, Gulotta said. The new system still has that capability, but it has to be manually turned on, he said.

Better educating dispatchers about the features of the new system helped with the technical issues, Gulotta said.

"One of the things we incorporated when we took over is, we really engaged the users in a lot of the solutions and making sure they recognized the system differences," Gulotta said. "We worked very well with the users to make sure they knew how the system was supposed to run."

Most of the issues with dropped calls were resolved by tweaks to the 911 system, he said.

The new system had an automated feature that would override calls if the caller didn't say anything or it didn't pick up any sound, Gulotta said. That feature has since been turned off.

"Once they did that the dispatcher complaints of performance from the system almost dropped to nothing," he said.

The technical glitches from last year have been fully resolved, said one communications center staffer.

"The reported issues of the phone system of last year are no longer. Those have been fixed completely, including the technical issues, as well as the user-training issues," said communications training supervisor Kathy Beausoleil.

A customer service line was set up in September for callers to report any problems contacting 911 after phone lines were overloaded with calls from an incident at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Many of the calls received through the customer service line weren't related to the city's 911 system, Gulotta said. Several of the calls were issues with other 911 centers in the county, so the Fire Department would refer the information to those agencies, he said.

The Fire Department also worked to increase staffing and transferred human resources and payroll responsibilities from line supervisors to other

Fire Department employees to alleviate overburdened workers. "At our worst we were down almost 20 employees," Beausoleil said.

Currently, the department needs to fill two 911 operator positions and six public safety dispatcher positions; however, there is already a pool of applicants, she said.

Fire Department officials met with communications center staffers to listen to their concerns and made changes to help boost their morale, Gulotta said.

A stationary bike was brought in to the dispatch room to give workers an opportunity to exercise and ward off fatigue. Dispatchers were given new headsets to replace broken ones - some were working with headsets held together with tape, Gulotta said.

A computer was set up in a breakroom to give staffers a place to check personal email or browse the Internet. And, the communications staff took part in a contest to come up with a new logo for their work shirts.

"Things are going very smoothly here. The employees are much happier," Gulotta said.

Last year, dispatchers voiced their concerns to City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who was critical of how the city handled the transition to the new 911 system.

Kozachik said he keeps in touch with the dispatchers, and they are pleased with how the system is functioning. "From an equipment and technology standpoint, everyone is very happy, and everyone has given the new system a thumbs up," Kozachik said.

To keep up morale, management should continue to involve the dispatchers and operators in decisions that affect their work environment, Kozachik said.

Before the Fire Department took over, there was little communication between management from the General Services Department and dispatchers on decisions that directly affected their work, Kozachik said.

"My message to management is don't blow it now. The frontline workers are the heart and lungs of that operation: They keep it going" he said. "Let's make sure that we're conferring and being inclusive with the frontline workers in making these changes."

An upgrade of the center's computer-aided dispatch system, three years in the works, took effect this week and replaced the old system, in place since the late '80s.

"It's the difference between a VHS tape and Blu-ray," Gulotta said. When the new 911 system was put into place last year, the old system was entirely shut off, leaving no backup options when technical issues started happening.

While the new system was in test mode, dispatchers have been alternating using the new system and the old system every other day, and the old system will continue to be in place in case any problems arise, Gulotta said.

"We're not messing around with this, you know, if somebody calls up and one of the dispatchers goes, 'Hey, something's going on with the new system.' It would be seconds, and we'd be right up on the old system. Nobody would even know," Gulotta said. "During the entire implementation and for a period of time after we go live we still have the old system to fall back on. Until we're fully comfortable with the new system, we will maintain the old system."

The new computer-aided system has better mapping capabilities, is controlled by a mouse or commands instead of codes, and allows dispatchers and units in the field to better interact, Beausoleil said.

"It allows us to physically track the units on a map instead of seeing a group of coordinates we have to translate to a location," Beausoleil said. "It allows the recommendations to be based on time. It takes into consideration the type of road, the speed limit, road closures, construction, and dispatches the closest unit based on the amount of time it takes to get there."

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