New software assists Aurora dispatchers in asking all the right questions

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AURORA | With a screaming and often hysterical caller on the other end of the line, it’s not always easy for 911 dispatchers to ask the exact questions first responders most need them to.

“They’re having to recall, ‘What was it that they told me in training? What did they tell me to ask?’” said Diane Culverhouse, manager of public safety communications for the city of Aurora.

Now, with the help of a new system that feeds dispatchers the appropriate questions as they take a call, Culverhouse said dispatchers don’t need to fret about remembering exactly what to ask — even in those hyper-stressful moments.

The city’s police, fire and medical dispatchers started using a new system called Priority Dispatch late last year. The system posts questions on the dispatcher’s computer screen and, based on their responses, posts follow-up questions and deploys the appropriate emergency response.

According to a city statement announcing the software last year, Priority Dispatch “relies on protocols established by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, a nonprofit organization that sets standards for safe and effective emergency dispatch services based on nearly 40 years of data.”

Culverhouse said getting the appropriate response to emergency calls is obviously important for a variety of reasons.

One reason is that it saves on the cost to the city to not send a fire truck or other equipment and personnel to a call that doesn’t really need it.

“We want to make sure that the citizen gets what they need, that we don’t over-extend and over-send,” she said.

Plus, any time police, fire or ambulance crews speed to a call with their lights and sirens blaring, they could be putting responders, other motorists and pedestrians at risk, she said. So, it’s important dispatchers make it clear whether crews really need to respond  to an emergency.

“This allows us to truly pick and choose the incidents we really feel are truly in need of that response,” she said.

The city has been tracking the progress of the program since it launched in November.

According to city documents, about one-third of the calls in December were “non compliant” with the system, meaning dispatchers didn’t ask the questions correctly or otherwise went off script. To have the system accredited, fewer than 7 percent of the calls have to meet that “non compliant” designation, according to documents.

Culverhouse said Aurora is one of the few Colorado cities using the system for police, fire and medical calls. Other cities use it for only medical or other calls, she said.

So far, about three-quarters of the 75 employees at the dispatch center have undergone the training, and Culverhouse said she hopes everyone will have gone through the eight-day training by later this spring.

Culverhouse said she doesn’t think people calling 911 or the non-emergency dispatch line will notice any difference. They still talk to a real, live person, and the questions are in line with what they would have asked previously.

“It’s still a conversation,” she said. “It just allows them to make sure they ask those questions.”