Not long after a Community Watchdog investigation uncovered a concerning problem in Sullivan County, dispatchers responded. Now, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office is consistently getting 911 calls dispatched to fire and medical crews faster than ever before; more than 30 seconds faster in some cases.
Rex Pendergrass is still in disbelief that he’s able to work on a boat inside a Watson’s Marine building today. He knows a fire back in January should have completely taken the marine out of business.
“It’s incredible, it really is,” he said. “It could have been worse.”
From the moment the first call came into 911 that Sunday night to the moment 911 alerted firefighters dispatchers say just 29 seconds passed. Firefighters followed that up with a quick response too.
“It was really amazing just to see the response,” Pendergrass said.
In the end, the fire still caused $1 million worth of damage and destroyed the marine’s showroom, but firefighters stopped the flames before they took out the rest of Watson’s Marine.
“We would have definitely lost everything,” Pendergrass.
Had Sullivan County 911 not made changes in recent months they very well could have lost everything. After we alerted the sheriff’s office about longer than normal dispatch times the agency pledged to do better.
“They needed to come down,” Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office IT Systems Analyst Mark Hollomon said of the dispatch times. “We need to be on our best at folks’ worst in their lives.”
The numbers show they’ve lived up to that promise. According to 911 call data, the dispatch times for both fire and emergency responders in Sullivan County started drastically improving in November, the month after our investigation. Since then, they’ve remained much lower on average. According to 911, last month saw a 41 second improvement down from the 2014 average for fire calls of 2:04 and a 19 second improvement for medical calls down from the 2014 average of 2:16.
Hollomon says after our story supervisors reviewed the data and made a policy change. Instead of asking a lot of questions on the front end of a call, they now require dispatchers to get the address, callback number, complaint type and caller’s name and immediately dispatch first responders, then collect additional information. He says dispatchers have embraced the big change.
“All of them were on board that on some of the calls we need to get the pertinent information out and then send the responders out,” Hollomon said.
As a result, instead of taking more than two minutes to dispatch a medical call like they did in 2014, dispatchers got a chest pain call out earlier this month in just a minute and two seconds.
Hollomon says the shorter dispatch times are also the result of a clerical change. Supervisors say in the past, dispatchers would occasionally send out responders but fail to mark them as dispatched in the computer system, which may have skewed the numbers. He says they have since corrected that issue. Hollomon says that change coupled with the new dispatch policy should now keep the numbers down.
“You always got to strive to be better and that’s what we want to do,” Hollomon said. “We want to continue to improve and we’ll do that.”
It is an improvement volunteer firefighters have noticed.
“I think it just took sitting down and taking a look at different problems and scenarios we were having and making everybody aware and that’s obviously worked,” Avoca Volunteer Fire Department Chief David Taylor said. “There’s still some calls that may run a little longer, but those are specialty calls.”
Our original investigation prompted firefighters and dispatchers to get together to address the problem; an effort Chief Taylor says led to results.
“After we had our meeting with dispatch things have greatly improved,” he said.
East Sullivan County Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brian Gentry says he has noticed the improvement too.
“We’ve not had (any longer calls that have) stuck out,” Chief Gentry said. “It does seem like things have gotten better and we appreciate that.”
Pendergrass couldn’t be more grateful for the shorter dispatch times.
“Very, very thankful, yes,” he said.
When Watson’s Marine needed desperate help a fire call that used to take more than two minutes to dispatch took just 29 seconds and that alone may very well have saved the business.
“It was the difference between another fire in another building,” Pendergrass said.
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