Transfer delays of 911 calls a ‘difference of life and death’

EVERETT — Snohomish County has two different 911 centers.

Every day, more than 130 calls to 911 need to be transferred between them.

The average transfer has a 21-second delay. If the other 911 center is busy, the caller gets a recording: Stay on the line until someone is available.

That happened July 30 to four people who were reporting a mass shooting at a Mukilteo house party. Among them was a young man with a gunshot wound asking for an ambulance. The recording from his transferred call was played at a public meeting Sept. 15 for police and fire chiefs from around the county.

“We don’t have that time,” former Mukilteo Police Chief Chuck Macklin said at the meeting. “Twenty-one seconds is the difference of life and death. It’s an eternity. The people making those calls don’t care about two dispatch centers. They want a response.”

The 911 transfers create “chaos,” Sheriff Ty Trenary said.

“Those people calling 911 typically are victims,” he said. “How do we provide the best service? That’s our job. I want one central (911) location.”

In Snohomish County, 911 calls are answered by SNOPAC in Everett or SNOCOM in Mountlake Terrace, depending on geography. Officials are considering a merger of the two centers, and they expect a decision sometime next year. The merger has been explored several times over the decades, but the local politics get complicated.

At the Sept. 15 meeting, many of the chiefs were critical of the transfers. Macklin spoke up on his last day on the force before retirement.

The volume of calls transferred is about 1 in 5 at SNOCOM and 1 in 50 at SNOPAC, according to a new report obtained by The Daily Herald. County-wide, the annual total transferred is about 50,000 calls.

The transfers “delay response to emergencies, frustrate callers and consume (911) resources,” the report said.

The two dispatch centers have worked together to reduce the delays, but there is no easy fix, SNOCOM Director Terry Peterson said.

Merger talks between public agencies can take years. David Chan, an elected commissioner with Fire District 1, asked if there might be a quicker solution for the transfer problems, short of consolidation. That’s because questions over consolidation always come back to money, he said.

“The technology is there,” said Brad Reading, an assistant chief at District 1. “It’s more political.”

These days, the majority of 911 calls are made from cellphones. Land-line calls are simpler to route. Cellular towers can’t easily distinguish city limits and the boundaries of the dispatch centers.

About 140,000 people live in unincorporated south county in areas served by Fire District 1 and the sheriff’s office. Fire District 1 is dispatched by SNOCOM, and the sheriff’s office by SNOPAC.

The dividing line between SNOCOM and SNOPAC was drawn up more than a decade ago. It runs between the south end of Mukilteo and the north end of Mill Creek. It roughly follows 132nd Street SE through the densely populated area between south Everett, Lynnwood and Mukilteo.

If a 911 call is mis-routed by a cell tower, the first dispatcher tries to get an exact location from the caller and to determine the urgency of the situation. That information gets entered into shared software and in many cases can be used to get police and firefighters rolling. During the transfer, however, few additional details can be gleaned from the caller because of the loud ringing sound on the line.

Will Kramer, the 18-year-old who was shot in the back in Mukilteo and survived, was among the 911 callers the morning of July 30. So was a young woman who was screaming and crying that her friends were bleeding to death because of a shooter.

Both young people had to start speaking with one dispatcher, then were transferred. They heard a second round of ringing before a recording that 911 was busy. The audio tapes of those calls were played for the chiefs at the merger meeting earlier this month.

On the recording, Kramer could be heard moaning in pain, asking 911 for an ambulance. By the time the second dispatcher answered, police were on scene. The dispatcher couldn’t get Kramer back on the line.

A transfer ties up two dispatchers at once. A major emergency combined with handling transfers can turn into 911 “gridlock,” Peterson said.

“That’s 21 seconds per call that’s essentially time that’s wasted,” he said.

The delays used to be longer, with an average of 51 seconds. That’s nearly a minute of lost time per 911 call.

The transfer time was reduced in fall 2015 with the county-wide launch of New World Systems software for dispatchers, police and firefighters. The software has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years. It was blamed for the 23-minute delay of backup crews to Everett’s June warehouse fire.

Despite its bugs, the software allows dispatchers at SNOPAC and SNOCOM to share information on their computer screens, even before the transfer. Callers are less likely to become frustrated if they aren’t forced to repeat themselves, the report says.

In the Mukilteo shootings, the transferred callers had information on the suspected gunman’s name and the type of weapon, SNOPAC Director Kurt Mills said.

The Mukilteo calls are “extremely relevant to the conversation we’re having today,” Mills said.

“Obviously, in a situation like that, the transfer is an unnecessary delay,” he said.

In times of crisis, a 911 dispatcher builds a relationship with each caller, and a transfer disrupts that relationship, Mukilteo Fire Chief Chris Alexander said.

“Most people in an emergency aren’t going to be okay with that,” he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com; @rikkiking.

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