911 : At 1 Year, Emergency System Still Maturing
Four floors below street level in City Hall East, Rhonda Johnson quickly typed on a computer screen as a caller to the city’s 911 emergency telephone number nervously described an apparent assault taking place in a car outside her Van Nuys office.
“Now they’re chasing them,” the caller said.
“Chasing? They’re out of the car?” Johnson asked.
“Yes. Now they’re on foot.”
Working out of the Los Angeles Police Department’s command center, which contains the city’s 30 emergency service computer terminals, the 26-year-old Johnson pressed a button to dispatch the call.
Speaking rapidly in a near monotone, she radioed: ". . . Two males chasing two women on foot, northbound on Van Nuys Boulevard. . . .”
An officer acknowledged--by computer, not orally--that he was on the way. Johnson pressed another button and her written information on the call was sent to a computer terminal in the officer’s car.
That process--which before 911 might have taken as long as 10 minutes, according to Johnson, who is a five-year veteran of police dispatch work--took less than two.
One year after it was inaugurated, the city’s 911 system is helping the city dispatch emergency police, fire and ambulance assistance faster than ever before, as it was designed to do. But the operation--the largest in the state--still suffers from what one official describes as “growing pains,” and surmounting these will be costly.
The system, which cost $1.6 million to install and an additional $1.8 million a year for leasing equipment, was once so plagued with design and staffing problems that it trailed Los Angeles County’s system by eight months when Mayor Tom Bradley formally activated it Oct. 1, 1984.
Now, it gets at least satisfactory marks from officials.
“It does work. It’s lived up to its expectations,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Deputy Chief Tim de Luca, commander of city fire support services.
Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, chairman of the Police, Fire and Public Safety Committee, said, “Although I feel there are still glitches to be ironed out, it’s a big improvement.”
Many of the system’s problems stem from the sheer volume of calls it receives, more than were anticipated in the system’s first year. The call fielded by Johnson was one of an average 3,500 to 4,000 received daily at the centralized Los Angeles telephone system.
The system is bedeviled by lack of equipment to handle calls at peak times, such as during the recent Night Stalker scare. The state recommends that calls be answered within 10 seconds. There are also problems involved with hiring and training the hundreds of operators needed to handle the job, which some consider as stressful as that of air traffic controllers.
Based on the experience of other cities, such as San Francisco, which established a 911 system in 1981, and San Diego, which started in 1982, Pacific Bell, the telephone company that helped design the Los Angeles program, estimated that only 30% to 40% of emergency calls would be received on 911 during the first year.
Instead, “We started out at 30%,” said Officer Dave Twitchell, a 911 coordinator in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Communications Division, which oversees the city system. “Now 911 calls are 50% of our call level.” (Other calls are received on the traditional seven-digit emergency number.)
A recent survey of the daily 911 calls by the Police Department found that 21% were life-threatening emergencies, 40% were dispatched but not considered life-threatening, 23% were informational calls and 17% were abuse calls.
“Everybody’s been surprised that the numbers have gone up so fast in the city of Los Angeles,” said Mike Sharbrough, the Pacific Bell marketing representative to Los Angeles governmental agencies.
William Brandenburg, manager of the state 911 program, noted that since the Legislature mandated the 911 system in 1972 and ordered it to be in effect statewide by Dec. 31, 1985, about 365 such programs have been installed in 56 of the state’s 58 counties. (The bulk of the costs are met through a state tax on telephone bills of 0.5%, first imposed in 1977, which costs residential users about 8 cents a month.)
Kern County will have a system in early November, and Humboldt by mid-December.
“As more of the state agencies turn on 911 systems, more and more people become aware of it,” Brandenburg said, “and so the ratio (of citizen use) is happening much faster.”
At the same time, the technology needed to juggle large numbers of calls among available operators at peak times--usually late at night or on weekends--has not been available until recently. That has meant the city’s system sometimes slows down so much, said Capt. Keith Bushey, head of LAPD’s Communications Division, that callers might wait 30 seconds or more before a 911 call is answered.
According to Brandenburg, this problem has not been felt so far in other major cities such as San Francisco or San Diego, which have centralized answering systems like Los Angeles, or in counties such as Los Angeles, San Bernardino or Contra Costa, which have decentralized 911 answering points in local sheriff stations.
Los Angeles County’s 911 system, which became operational in January, 1984, handles an average 1,291 calls a day, for example. The calls are answered in “under two seconds,” Los Angeles Sheriff’s Sgt. Bryan Hatch, said. “The system has worked flawlessly.”
But Brandenburg says it is only a matter of time before the problems facing Los Angeles are encountered elsewhere. “Populations keep growing, and as other areas grow, these agencies will be facing the same situation,” he said.
The 911 call about the men chasing two women in Van Nuys was an example of the system at its best, with the call immediately answered and an officer almost immediately responding. (When he got to the scene, however, he found no one there.) But the call was taken in the middle of a weekday afternoon, and things were “dead,” emergency board operator Johnson said.
“It goes in spurts. You have periods of time when it goes crazy and then it goes dead,” said Bushey. On an average, a city 911 caller waits five seconds, he said, and longer waits are “isolated” occurrences.
“We found when things get really rough that the system has a problem,” he added. “We had a difficult time during the last week of August with the heat and the Night Stalker. Every time somebody heard a peep in their backyard they’d call about the Night Stalker. We physically found ourselves handling more calls than the center could hold. That’s when a citizen might have to wait 30 seconds.”
Ideas for Improvement
Efforts are under way to improve city equipment in a variety of ways, Bushey said. Officials are planning to acquire equipment to better distribute incoming calls, to improve the existing system so that calls that are not life-threatening can be immediately transferred off the incoming lines, and to improve the overall capacity of the Police Department’s computer system.
A call distribution problem cropped up, according to Pacific Bell’s Sharbrough, because the original equipment developed several years ago by American Telephone & Telegraph to handle 911 provided no more than 15 answering stations, and no improved system has since emerged to replace it.
To answer more calls, Los Angeles acquired two such call distributors, with a total of 30 answering points. But then the city discovered that if one of the distributors was getting more calls than the other, Bushey said, there was no way to transfer waiting calls from one 15-point bank to the other group of operators, even if all the other 15 were sitting idle.
Now, Sharbrough said, a system has been developed that can distribute the calls more equitably among all of the operators available. Bushey said the city is in negotiations with the state over what share the state will pay of its estimated $700,000 cost. The equipment should be installed by May, 1986.
An interim improvement that may be installed within “a couple of months,” Bushey said, and cost under $10,000 to install, would allow operators to quickly separate life-threatening 911 calls, such as a house on fire or a baby choking, from non-life-threatening ones such as a burglary report.
The operator would stay on the line with the life-threatening call and transfer the non-life-threatening one to another bank of operators, Bushey said. “That way,” he added, “if somebody has to experience a 30- or 40-second delay it doesn’t have to be the person with their house on fire.” Still another improvement under consideration, Bushey said, would improve the capacity of the police computer itself, which handles transactions of the field terminals in police cars and all the area police divisions. The emergency telephone system is connected to this system also.
Use of the computer by police personnel has far exceeded expectations, Bushey said. “It was felt that it would take until 1990 for the Police Department to reach 17,000 to 18,000 transactions per hour. Well, we’re finding times in 1985 we are reaching 17,000 per hour. We have a system that’s working faster and harder than we anticipated.”
As a result, Bushey added, the 911 system is at times adversely affected. “When we really have a busy time, the whole system slows down,” he said. “Sometimes that means it takes a 911 operator more time to clear the screen. That can further aggravate answering time, because operators cannot handle the next call until they can clear the screen.”
LAPD, the city administrative office and the general services department, he said, are “exploring” solutions to that problem that might cost several million dollars to solve.
Training of Operators
Another problem facing the city’s 911 system is its emergency board operators. While the decentralized county 911 system uses deputies on regular desk duty in the Sheriff Department’s 19 substations, the city’s centralized system employs civilian operators called “public service representatives.”
Since the system went into effect, Bushey said, there has been a “50% dropout rate” among the operators hired and trained for the job. To be fully staffed with “completely trained” operators, he added, the command center needs 396 people, but right now has only 280 who are fully trained. It takes about seven to eight months, he added, to fully train an operator.
“It’s a very difficult job and we’re working on improving selection procedures,” Bushey said. “We’re working with the personnel department to develop tests to make sure we hire somebody that has the potential to process multiple tasks. You have to talk, type and listen simultaneously, and in my judgment a good portion of the people we hired didn’t have the ability to develop the skills.”
Rhonda Johnson, who had worked for the Police Department as a dispatch operator before the 911 system, said, “When you have a person that’s hysterical or afraid, their fear, that jumpiness in their voice transfers to you.
“You have to calm them down,” she continued. “But when you start getting these people over and over again, it causes a lot of stress. A lot depends on your attitude. You have to just forget about the last call and go on to the next one.”