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ONE IN 10 CALLS UNANSWERED LACK OF DISPATCHERS GETS SOME OF BLAME.

Byline: Harrison Sheppard Staff Writer

One in 10 people who called the LAPD's 911 emergency system this year did not reach a live operator, according to figures released Wednesday by the police union.

Los Angeles Police Protective League officials said the statistic indicates people are hanging up out of frustration or calls are being mishandled - problems the union blames on understaffing and poor working conditions, including a 17 percent job-vacancy rate for emergency operators.

``911 is supposed to be for a life-threatening emergency,'' said union President Mitzi Grasso. ``While not all of these are life-threatening calls, those that are deserve to be able to talk to a live human being.''

But Police Department officials and other experts in emergency communications said Los Angeles' figure does not necessarily reflect a failure of the system. Instead, they said so-called ``dropped calls'' can often be due to more routine reasons such as callers who hang up because they didn't intend to dial 911 or wireless phones that lost their signal.

``We know from experience and documented surveys that a vast number of calls placed to the 911 system are from people who, for whatever reason, when they hear the phone ring once or twice, they hang up before the operator answers,'' said LAPD spokesman Lt. Horace Frank. ``That counts as a dropped call.''

Chief Bernard C. Parks said the PPL's characterization is inaccurate because of the large number of hang-ups.

``You have no idea what service they wanted. You have no idea whether they called back and received service,'' Parks told KCAL-TV (Channel 9).

He said completion of a second communication center in the San Fernando Valley will fix the problem.

When people call 911, their telephone number and address automatically appear on the operator's screen. When a dropped call occurs, the operator is required to call the person back and find out whether they have a true emergency, Frank said.

The LAPD's emergency communications center received 671,944 calls between Jan. 1 and May 30, Frank said. Of those, 60,944, or 9 percent, were dropped.

While the union said the number of dropped calls was slightly lower, it gave a rate of dropped calls that was was roughly the same - between 9 percent and 10 percent.

Grasso - whose group represents sworn officers, not civilian 911 operators - said morale among emergency operators is low and that 85 of the 500 positions are unfilled.

``It's a very high-pressure position,'' she said. ``They don't get a lot of support.''

The city is advertising for 911 emergency operators and offering to pay them $3,485 to $4,102 a month, plus an additional 5.5 percent for working at night or early-morning shifts, according to the city's Web site.

Frank acknowledged that 911 personnel have a high rate of turnover, but said it has been a decade-long and nationwide problem. The attrition rate in Los Angeles matches the national average since 1994 of 50 percent, he added.

One of the problems affecting morale is generally agreed to be the current working conditions of the operators. The current citywide dispatch center is in a windowless basement four stories below City Hall East.

The city plans to open two new dispatch centers with more advanced technology and better working conditions, but they won't open for at least two years. One will be in the Valley, the other downtown.

Other cities have a better rate of dropped calls. In Chicago, for example, the Chicago Emergency Communications Center, built in 1995, boasts of having the ``fastest call connection time in the world.''

That results in almost no dropped calls, according to center spokesman Larry Langford.

``When you call 911 in Chicago, generally speaking, 99 percent of the time you don't hear the phone ring,'' Langford said.

The Chicago center handles about 17,500 calls a day, including about 30 percent of those from cell phones, he said.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Dispatcher Eleanor Medina handles 911 calls at the Los Angeles dispatch center.

(2) When 911 dispatchers take a break, their chairs are empty because there are no operators to pick up their emergency calls.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jul 19, 2001
Words:693
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