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June 30, 2011

New Ohio regional dispatch raises concerns

By Doug Page
Dayton Daily News

DAYTON, Ohio — Since moving to the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center last year, Dayton police, firefighters and medics complain they are sometimes sent to the wrong address, the wrong equipment is dispatched and updates on the dispatches are confusing.

In one instance, it took police 48 minutes to get to a man assaulted with a bat. He eventually walked to the medics who were standing by, waiting for police to secure the scene.

Those at the dispatch center and Dayton police and firefighters agree timely and accurate dispatching is critical for the safety of residents, firefighters, medics and police officers.

Dayton's move to regional dispatch — which almost doubled the center's call load — was billed as a way for the city to save millions while providing the same or better service as the previous local dispatch.

Prior to Dayton fire dispatch moving over in September and police in December, the center handled calls from 19 police departments and 10 fire departments throughout the county. Dayton fire and medic calls boosted the fire call load by more than double from 28,000 annually to an expected 60,000.

Police calls went from 250,000 annually to an expected 450,000.

What worked for the smaller departments, who have not encountered as many problems, was not workable for the Dayton call load.

"You had two separate organizations with the same function but different languages," said police Maj. Mark Ecton, the department's chief of staff.

One of the biggest changes is going from sworn police officers and firefighter/paramedics filling the dispatcher chair to civilian employees — a major cost savings.

"We got spoiled by our fire dispatchers. They did a lot of anticipating for us of what was need in terms of resources and equipment," said James Cox, president of the local firefighters union.

"A lot of the situation is experience," Fire Chief Herbert Redden said. "They're learning. We are concerned, and they (regional dispatch) are addressing the situation."

Sheriff's Capt. Rob Streck, who oversees the dispatch center, said the dispatch center is in daily contact with police and fire officials as they work through the language and culture problems from both ends.

Fire and police commanders and the Sheriff's Office said the problems are being addressed as soon as they are recognized.

"The dispatcher function remains the same, but there has to be a common standard, a common language," Streck said. That, he said, requires a change in culture on the streets, in the station houses and at the dispatch center.

Union leaders are critical of the situation.

"It's a mess," said Dayton police Lt. Randy Beane, president of the local FOP.Cox agreed there are continuing problems that have not been addressed.

While the Police Department has a informal system to report problems through the chain of command, the Fire Department uses an online survey tool available to all firefighters. To date, firefighters have filed 61 complaints.

A Dayton Daily News investigation found two recent examples of breakdowns in the system, and the response to correct those errors.

The dispatch center received a 911 call June 11 on a bar fight on Huffman Avenue at 8:39 p.m. The caller reported a patron hit an employee in the stomach with the bat and fled. A crew was dispatched to the scene at 8:43. But three minutes later, the crew canceled the call to respond to another call of a car hitting a house. There was a mention of a baseball bat, leading officers to believe it might be related, Streck said he was told.

No other unit was available to respond to the Huff-man Avenue incident. Meanwhile, dispatchers had sent a medic to the scene to await the arrival of police to secure the scene.

The victim walked to the medic at 9:06 for treatment as medics reported a large crowd gathering outside the bar.

It was not until 9:27 that another two-officer crew made it to the scene, 48 minutes after the initial 911 call.

Streck said the dispatcher should have been more aggressive in either overriding the canceling of the call or in pursuing getting another unit on the scene as soon as possible.

In another case, medics were dispatched to aid a shooting victim on Decker Avenue. The victim was lying in an alley just before the sidewalk in front of the apartment building. The suspect was still in the second-floor apartment overlooking the street. While en route, dispatch told medic that the scene was secure.

But when medics pulled up, they found police in tactical vests, weapons drawn and behind cover.

"The scene was not secure. It was not safe for us to go in and work on the patient," Cox said.

Maj. Ecton said the dispatch center was not at fault. "An officer on the scene told dispatch the scene was secure. ... We also have a culpability in what's happening."

Streck said he is initiating a ride-along program for dispatchers and supervisors who handle the Dayton fire and police calls. "They'll get to see what they are dispatching."

In addition, the dispatch center is looking for dispatchers who have fire and/ or police experience.

Fire and police officials both said some of the problems are the same as when they were dispatched by their own dispatchers.

The confusion over Perry and Terry streets, for example, was a chronic problem. They are some 2 miles apart.

Copyright 2011 Dayton Newspapers, Inc.

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