PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Five months after 10 On Your Side reported on serious issues with 911 in Portsmouth, has anything changed?
There’s solid evidence improvements are underway to improve response times in picking up calls. And what about those thousands of calls not answered in the standard time?
“The reporting mattered and opened our eyes to different avenues of where we needed to focus,” says Portsmouth Fire Battalion Chief Justin Arnold, who is now in charge of Portsmouth 911.
10 On Your Side interviewed several people who all said basically the same thing. “We would call and call and call and no one would pick up.”
In 2018, 911 answer times which should be answered 90% of the time within 10 seconds, often fell into the 60s in Portsmouth, and thousands were not answered in 40 seconds.
“This was an explanation point that we needed to further look at the problem,” Arnold said.
Arnold said that City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton came to him, “to look at what’s wrong, and to fix it … It was coming in with a fresh mentality, a fresh set of eyes, and basically doing something from scratch,” Arnold added.
Patton took 911 from police and handed it over to Portsmouth Fire Chief Jim Hoffler, who said, “Since we were doing Emergency Management, and we were running the Emergency Operations Center, it was sort of a natural transition to move it towards us.”
Hoffler put Arnold in charge. “Staffing people was the first thing they said to build morale, or pay. They were the two things that moved people. I think it was really just about listening,” Arnold said.
Arnold simply listened.
“The first thing we had to look at was the Dispatch Center, what was causing some of those issues, and we found that in the equipment infrastructure,” Arnold said. It appears the 911 analogue infrastructure for landline calls is outdated at the Verizon Data Interchange Building on High Street. Arnold confirms landline callers get up to 10 seconds of dead silence before Verizon switches the call to the proper locality, and a dispatcher picks up.
Keep in mind when Portsmouth was failing to pick up, many callers had already been on the line up to 10 seconds, just to continue to get no response. That ended with many just hanging up. They would then call back, but the system puts them at the end of the line, and the wait time is magnified.
“You want it urgent. 911 what is your emergency?” says Daniel Jones, who is the city’s Chief Information Officer. Portsmouth is actually switching from Verizon to AT&T early next year because of the analogue issue.
“We are getting away from any analog technology, and we are going to digital for the … 911 call network.”
The next issue was 911 staffing. Since February, the city has hired 14 new dispatchers who made the cut. There are currently 33 dispatchers, 1 administrator and 5 vacancies.
“We are not there yet. We don’t have staff in place to offset what you saw before, so it is literally moving people around to cover those busy times we have identified,” Arnold added.
Increased staffing with mandatory overtime during critical hours seems to be working.
Remember the low 60% answer times from five months ago? Those numbers are now in the 70s and 80s.
Beginning October 1, all shifts now have five dispatchers. And guess what happened on October 8? 100% of the calls were answered within 10 seconds during many hours of service.
Arnold showed us the answer time confirmation to prove what he was saying. “My purpose to show you this, staffing matters. The more people we can get (on staff) those numbers are going to continue to go up … the magic number is five on the shift to get 100%,” Arnold said.
It is important to note improved staffing led to improved morale, and taking care of dispatchers, which was a widespread complaint, continues to improve.
Arnold continued with his approach, “We asked were we giving the training we needed? Were we providing professional development as it was needed? We were asking are you comfortable being at work? Did you get along with your co-worker? We wanted to do a holistic approach.”
Finally, Portsmouth’s non-emergency 311 has just gone online to take away unnecessary calls to 911.
“So the 311 center is hopefully taking those ordinary complaints or ordinary questions and putting them in a system, so they can address them by city department, and so far it has been working,” Arnold said.
Since 311 non-emergency was pushed out July 1, Portsmouth has no data available on the impact 311 has had on diverting 911 calls.
10 On Your Side also received no comment from Verizon on losing the Portsmouth contract over analog equipment.