An internal audit shows that while Atlanta’s emergency response center has made significant progress in answering most 911 calls within 10 seconds, it needs to do more to ensure greater staffing during the center’s busiest times.
City Auditor Leslie Ward said simple fixes such as changing shift schedules and reducing overtime could go a long way in making the department better and more cost-efficient.
City officials agreed with all the recommendations in the audit and set a time table of six to 12 months to implement them.
“We found the audit to be reasonable. We had no problem with it,” said Deputy Police Chief Erika Shields, who oversees the center. “It is always important to have an outside view, and they provided that. We are already actively engaged on several initiatives.”
In 2012, the center answered 91 percent of incoming emergency calls within 10 seconds, which was a goal of the Atlanta Police Department.
“What is huge is we are exceeding the benchmark of answering the calls,” Shields said, adding that that figure has since ticked up to 93 percent.
Those improvements come less than five years after the center was considered a major liability in the city. In 2009, then-Police Chief Richard Pennington fired 911 Director Miles Butler after a series of high-profile blunders, including a house fire in Grant Park that burned more than 20 minutes after 911 calls came in and before firefighters arrived. That was followed by a fire at a birthday party that raged for 17 minutes before firefighters were dispatched.
But while new goals have been reached, the overall daily performance was uneven. For at least seven hours a day, including the peak late afternoon times, the center fell short of its goals.
Staffing did not increase enough during those peak times while remaining high during quiet times.
The audit showed that during the early morning hours — between 1 and 8 a.m. — the center used more staff to answer calls. During those times, call takers spent more time waiting for calls and only about 25 percent of their time on calls.
Call takers spent close to 50 percent of their time on emergency calls from 3 to 8 p.m.
During those peak times, call takers answered 86 percent of calls within 10 seconds.
Shields said that on each of the center’s three shifts, an equal amount of workers were used because the department assumed that a certain level had to be maintained at all times based on standards established by the Insurance Services Office, an independent company that collects and evaluates such data.
As of Oct. 12, according to the audit, the center had 151 positions filled. Most of them were communications officers, 911 call takers, dispatchers and supervisors.
“Essentially, that had been our approach. But we are learning that we can move people,” Shields said. “What the audit did was made us re-examine our interpretation of ISO standards.”
To compensate for some of the disparities, the center spent $1 million on overtime in 2012.
Shields said that while workers had to be moved occasionally to different shifts, a majority of the overtime was used for cross training, which involved training people on call taking, police dispatch and fire dispatch, all of which are different disciplines.
“They are all different skill sets, and it is critical to have sufficient personnel trained in each area so that we don’t have to utilize overtime,” Shields said.
Ward said proper scheduling could reduce total work hours by 305 hours a week.
“Anytime they can cut off overtime is a direct benefit to the general fund,” Ward said.
In the 42-page report, internal auditors are recommending:
- Buying sophisticated work scheduling software that would allow the center to come up with more efficient shifts. Shields said she is already looking for new software and studying what has succeeded and failed in other large cities.
- Developing a shift schedule that would align staff with the workload. Ward said this would essentially mean moving some staff from early mornings to afternoons.
- Continuing to reinforce the existing call dispatching procedures and monitor dispatch times to make sure call takers transfer information to dispatchers as quickly as possible.
“They have made some real improvements and the performance has gotten better,” Ward said. “And they can maintain that with a lower cost.”