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Title: 911 Acts To Avoid New Errors

A computer change will encourage dispatchers to verify addresses given to emergency crews

Source: Omaha World-Herald Publication date: 2000-05-04

Prompted by three recent 911 errors, Sarpy County officials have changed their computer system to encourage dispatchers to verify addresses before they send emergency crews to them. Dan Peterson, director of the Sarpy County Emergency Management Agency, said he disabled a key on the 911 computers that previously allowed dispatchers to automatically transfer addresses from a database to the system used to alert emergency personnel.

Now, dispatchers must retype addresses into the system, presumably prompting them to take more steps to make sure they are correct. Dispatchers are supposed to try to verify the address of every emergency call.

"My personal feeling is this is going to more actively involve the call-taker in the verification process," Peterson said. "It slows us down, but hopefully it will mitigate any errors."

The county's 911 advisory board was briefed about the change Wednesday evening.

Sarpy's 16-year-old dispatch system will be replaced this summer. The new $1.5 million system will offer several improvements, including a geographic display that gives dispatchers a picture of the location of the emergency call. It also will link the Sarpy and Douglas systems and allow different departments to communicate with one another.

Douglas already uses that system, which automatically transfers address information into the 911 system without any typing by the dispatchers.

Peterson said the errors - which he stressed are minimal compared to the thousands of accurate dispatches made each year - required a more immediate solution.

On April 26, a dispatcher read the database address on Victory Circle in Papillion as Victoria Circle. The error sent a rescue squad one mile out of the way, although it was able to respond to the correct location in 6 minutes. A man was pronounced dead after an emergency crew arrived. Officials said the delay had no effect on the outcome of the call because the man had been dead for several hours.

On April 19, a rescue crew was sent to 180th Street in Gretna, even though the emergency call regarding an unconscious man originated on 18th Street in Bellevue. The database reported the incorrect address, which wasn't initially verified. The man, who suffers from emphysema, recovered before help arrived.

A Sarpy County sheriff's sergeant called 911 from five other houses on the same block as the 18th Street home in Bellevue. Four of them were wrong on the dispatcher's screen, listing the addresses as 180th Street, and were corrected.

On March 13, firefighters were sent to South 52nd Street in Bellevue, 10 miles from a house fire on North 52nd Street in Omaha. An error in the database provided by the phone company created the problem, which was compounded when a dispatcher failed to verify the address with the caller. The fire was largely doused by the time Omaha firefighters arrived.

The change in the existing computer system is but the latest improvement effort. Peterson said he is consulting with a programmer who worked for the company that created the system. Sarpy County officials also have invited Douglas County 911 leaders to meet with them and to review their procedures for possible improvements.

After each incident, supervisors reviewed the errors and went over them with the dispatchers. In one case, an 11-year dispatcher with six commendations in her record was given a one-day suspension and was removed from fire and rescue dispatch duties for 30 days. In another case, a dispatcher also was removed from fire and rescue duties for 30 days.

Peterson said the department couldn't simply wait for the new system and hope it would resolve all of the problems. The potential for human error always exists. And even with the new system in place, it still will be relying on a database provided by area phone companies. An error in that database accounted for at least one of the recent errors.

He acknowledged that the temporary change in the computer system requiring dispatchers to manually retype addresses could create the potential for typographical errors. But he said the act of typing should make dispatchers more careful and remove the false sense of security they get because the database is normally so reliable.

He stressed that he is confident in the abilities of his staff and is concerned that these incidents will hurt morale. The department has only 20 of an authorized 32 employees available for work right now, with another eight in training.

"Our dispatchers are in an atmosphere where they're expected to perform at 100 percent without error," Peterson said. "That's a lot of pressure. ... They've performed almost flawlessly for a long time, and then we get three incidents here in two months."

Publication date: 2000-05-04 ) 2000, YellowBrix, Inc.


-- (, May 05, 2000

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