Understaffed S.F. 911 Dispatch Center to Get Computer Help, Additional Hires
A San Francisco Fire Department ambulance. Photo taken Dec. 12, 2010. ( Kyle Strickland/Flickr)
San Francisco emergency officials, who have been scrambling to respond to an increasing number of calls to the city's 911 dispatch center, plan to roll out new technology in the coming weeks that aims to improve ambulance response times.
The center's staffing problems have been known for some time, but they were highlighted during the massive power outage that took away electricity from around 90,000 PG&E customers on April 21.
That morning there were a dozen call-takers on duty. The Department of Emergency Management has acknowledged that it was not enough for the center to answer calls quickly enough.
Under pressure to respond faster to an increase in call volume, the agency is hiring more dispatchers.
And, during Wednesday's Fire Commission meeting, a top emergency official plans to unveil a new computer program that will help dispatchers send the closest medics to emergencies.
"The computer system will calculate which ambulance is closest and the approximate travel time, and allow us to always send the closest unit," said Rob Smuts, deputy director of the Department of Emergency Management, in an interview.
Currently a 911 dispatcher in San Francisco uses a map that shows the location of ambulances and a system that recommends an ambulance for a medical incident. But that system, known as a computer-aided dispatch (CAD), relies on where a medic reports for duty over a radio.
The department plans to start using technology that specifies exactly where an ambulance is, based on its GPS location. The new technology, known as a Mobile Area Routing and Vehicle Location Information System (MARVLIS), also uses Fire Department data to calculate how long it will take for an ambulance to respond to an incident.
The agency is currently testing the technology and plans to roll it out in the next few weeks, Smuts said.
He is expected to face questions from at least one member of the Fire Commission concerned about how the agency is working to make improvements.
"Seconds matter when you're calling for a firefighter or EMS," said Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese, who requested Smuts to appear on Wednesday after seeing reports of staffing problems at the 911 center.
The staffing issue prompted a call for a supervisors hearing. Earlier this month the San Francisco Examiner reported that Mayor Ed Lee promised that the city would meet the national standard of answering 90 percent of emergency calls within 10 seconds within the next two months.
And the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that when a man suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed at a local church last month, several people called 911, but the phone kept ringing.
"There are a lot of questions that I want to ask," Veronese said. "The primary goal is to see if we can be better at response times."
San Francisco receives more than 1.2 million emergency and non-emergency calls per year, according to Department of Emergency Management spokesman Francis Zamora. That's an average of more than 3,400 calls per day.
Since 2011, the agency has experienced a 37 percent increase in call volume. "That means our dispatchers are answering 1,000 more calls a day than they did six years ago," Zamora said.
The department blames San Francisco's growing population and the increasing popularity of smartphones for the increase.
Last year the agency hired 23 new dispatchers. Altogether, the department currently has 125. Smuts plans to tell the commission that it is training 40 more to add to its ranks.