“Everyone is a walking 9-1-1 call,” says Joe Piper, Acting Operations Manager of the Boone County 911 Dispatch Center, also known as Joint Communications. Leaders at Joint Communications, located in downtown Columbia, say they are having trouble keeping up with the increase in calls. “It’s a good thing, in some ways, but it’s a bad thing in other ways because an incident can overwhelm us very quickly with one call taker,” Piper says. And at the same time, they don’t want people to feel discouraged from calling 911.
Missouri 9-1-1 call takers are required to call back a phone number if the number disconnects before a call taker can answer. This, while still important, creates a lot more work than dispatch workers have had in the past.
The national goal for emergency call times is to answer 95 percent of calls within in fifteen seconds. But the reality in Boone County is a little different than you might expect. 85 percent of phone calls are answered in fifteen seconds in Boone County in fifteen seconds, but it can sometimes take more than a minute to get an answer on a 9-1-1 call. And even in some it can take up to five minutes.
“I know there’s a need. If you spend time and you sit down and you visit you will see clearly. But what we do is very complicated, it is. It’s not a simple thing, you take a lot of that for granted. We’re not just answering the phone,” Piper says. And in fact, a visit is telling. In the dispatch room, and in the corridors of Joint Communication it is obvious this is a place that needs updates. Hallways are filled with records storage, which were once a fire hazard. Old computer equipment blocks doors. Radio equipment is broken and too old to replace. The main conference room and training is also Piper’s office, which seats four of five seats in a tight squeeze. “And again, you see shirts, record storage, books, the things you see in here are not in here because we want them to be in here, but it’s that we are required to keep it and we have no space,” Piper says.
The layout of the offices is also a major problem for a center that must work on speed and efficiency. “Some days you feel like that this is so inefficient. I am running all over the place. For something that should take me 10 minutes has taken me 30 minutes,” Piper says.
In the dispatch room, phones are buzzing and every person is on the phone or radio. Piper explains that there are five positions currently in the dispatch room. There is one funded position for a call taker, which is the only person who is supposed to answer the phone when someone calls 9-1-1. Yet, when the calls are numerous the calls start piling up and someone else has to answer the call, who is responsible for dispatching. “So now what happens is I have a person talking to a 911 caller and they’re half listening to their 911 caller and they’re half listening to their radio channels and not really able to fully listen to the caller, or fully listen to the responders,” Piper says. And when the phone is ringing call takers and dispatchers want to answer that call as soon as possible. “As a result,” Piper says, “Sometimes I will see our call takers, often I see them actually rush a call because they have pending, other pending calls ringing. And I don’t want my call takers shortchanging a caller in order to pick up another emergency call.” Joint Communications is asking for four more call taker positions. And each position requires five people to staff it twenty four hours, seven days a week.
Piper continues the tour to the Emergency Operations Center, the EOC, which is the gathering point for all important officials in the event of a large-scale disaster like a hurricane or flood. The EOC is two blocks away, tucked in the basement of a community center and day care center. This conference room that is supposed to house all the elected officials has a small conference table and a dozen seats. “They move the kids out, set up tables, and drop wires down from the ceiling,” says Dan Atwill, Boone County’s Presiding Commissioner. Piper explains that other EOC’s have dedicated space where people know where to go, and there is plenty of room for everyone to sit and stay for long periods of time. Piper says, “We’d like for these centers to exist in the same building. It just makes sense.” Piper also has two employees in the EOC, who have to run back and forth from each building several times daily. Atwill says, “I am concerned about that every day that something tragic could happen and we are quite unprepared to deal with it here.”
The increase in calls is not the only problem. Missouri is the only state in the country that does not tax money from cell phone calls in order to help pay for 911 and emergency management operations, according to Save911.org, a website dedicated to explaining Missouri’s 9-1-1 dispatch problems. Missouri has a small tax on landlines, but this only covers a portion of Boone County’s technology fund. And it’s hard to compare any 9-1-1 center by state or county. Each one is set up differently and services different users. Joint Communications serves thirteen separate user agencies like the Boone County Fire Protection District, Columbia Police and Columbia Fire Department.
“It’s been known since at least 1993 that additional personnel were needed and that updated equipment should be kept in place to operate this facility effectively and efficiently,” says Commissioner Atwill. Atwill, less than two years in this position, is pushing hard to secure more funding for Joint Communications. He along with other city leaders like Boone County Sherriff Dwayne Carey proposed a three-eighths cent sales tax for public vote on April 2, 2013. The funding, which has no expiration date would go towards a capital cost of around 20 million. The yearly operation expenses would increase to about 6 million from 2.5 million. A 9-1-1 steering committee released a report in order to provide to illustrate their decision in calling for a sales tax proposal.
It’s hard to argue with a need to update a 911 center, but with a large tax increase there is always trepidation. “No one wants to pay additional taxes, and I’m included in that. I don’t take a lot of pride in having to ask the community to fund this in order to have someone answer the phone when you have an emergency. But honestly there’s no other way to do this. We have to step up and do what’s necessary for public safety, and I’m not ashamed to do that at all because this touches the lives of everyone in the county,” Atwill says.
One may wonder why it has taken so long for anything to change at Joint Communications. “The people that do run Joint Communications are really good about patching it up and keeping it going. While they’ve been struggling for a long, long time it hasn’t been apparent to the users of this service in most cases,” says Atwill. In fact, Piper has been at Joint Communications for over twenty years and he says they are still working with the same number of staff and the same technology as when he started. When Joint Communications began in 1977 Boone County had a population of 80,000. Today the population had doubled to 165,000 Atwill thinks the growth in the area might be just beginning. “We have over 2,000 new living structures under construction in Boone County so it’s not like growth is over.”
Back at Joint Communications, Piper explains more about the workers. He says they are tired, and tired of working overtime and filling in for other people’s holiday shifts. But even with all these obstacles, people like their jobs at Joint Communications. “We want to do this, we want to help people. We are passionate about helping people. We just want the resources to be able to do it at the level we feel that Boone County the citizens of our community deserves.”