NEW LEXINGTON — Four minutes, 57 seconds. Five minutes, 13 seconds. Sixteen minutes, 30 seconds. They add up to minutes and seconds. But when that time is spent on a 911 call during an emergency, it’s not as inconsequential.
“If somebody is down there having a heart attack, minutes count. Seconds count,” New Lexington Fire Chief Jim Fain said.
A 1-mill, five-year levy dedicated for Perry County 911 and communications is on Tuesday’s ballot. It will generate what 911 supervisor Derrick Keylor said is a long-awaited annual fund of $854,225 for the center.
“Right now, we seem to be doing good, but there’s no catch, there’s no safety net,” said Keylor. “If the budget cycles, you’ll have to cut employees somewhere.”
Five Perry County fire chiefs have taken issue with the 911 center’s services, questioning if additional funding and technology will help a problem that they say is more focused on fostering employee skills. Three of those chiefs sat on an advisory board that determined the levy and felt their concerns were not being heard.
“We want a seat at the table, basically,” said Jeremy Weekly, Thorn Township Fire Department chief.
Six 911 phone calls obtained by the Times Recorder point to instances from June until October where calls were transferred to neighboring Licking County due to a 911 operator failing to locate the caller.
Fain and department chiefs from Shawnee, Hopewell and Thorn townships and Somerset said the problems don’t stop there. According to them, less easily documented cases also occur: Dispatchers reportedly fail to disclose important details of certain EMS calls and give wrong addresses miles away from the emergency.
They say it boils down to a couple of long-term issues in the department, starting from the top down. “There are (employees) there who are really good, and there are people there who may become good,” Shawnee Township’s Chief John Arkley said.
Fain said: “When (911 dispatchers) send us to the wrong place, those things are critical for these patients, and that concerns us greatly.”
According to the Licking County Regional Communications Center and the five fire chiefs, there are many more instances of 911 calls and negligent dispatches that have gone undocumented.
According to Perry County officials, these instances have a lot to do with a lack of funding and developing technology causing issues. Fire and EMS agencies who are dispatched on those calls said it’s part of a larger recurring issue at the center that has to do with training, and they say it starts with management. Keylor said a better training budget will help.
What happens after you dial 911 isn’t the same in every area, but typically when a 911 call is answered, the caller’s exact location doesn’t always pop up on the screen in front of the dispatcher. It depends on if you’re calling from a wired landline or a cellphone, and how good that cellphone’s GPS is.
GPS has made tracking cellphones easier, but it’s not foolproof. Dispatchers very often determine location by triangulating the call between the three closest cellphone towers. From there they can start pinpointing the place by asking questions and tracking the caller.
Keylor said the levy is designed to “maintain the service and to increase our efficiency” and that the levy has not been earmarked for any specific amounts yet. Nothing is in writing officially except for the levy’s language dedicating it to the 911 center and communications department.
Wages were set to increase in the department by 3% in 2021. Insurance costs could go up 6.5%, according to the commission.
“We want to dig into the policies, we want to see what is going to affect and help the whole county,” Weekly said.
There are a number of reasons why that could happen. “Bottom line, experience is a major issue,” Keylor said of his department.
According to some of the calls:
On June 2, a passerby reported an entrapment car crash at Ohio 13 just before High Point Road to Perry County 911. The caller describes a rollover accident at the Thornville intersection, about 6 miles south of the Licking County line. The 911 operator asks, “Are you in Licking County?” He answers yes, erroneously. The call is transferred to Licking County’s dispatcher. The Licking dispatcher sends Perry personnel on that call. The caller was on the phone for 5 minutes, 13 seconds between both of the transfers. It was a trauma call, Weekly said.
On Aug. 17, Licking County dispatch picked up a phone call from a man who had trouble describing his location. Four minutes into the call, a Perry County 911 dispatcher announced herself to help identify his address. She had reportedly made a blind transfer, meaning Licking County could not tell where the call came from or that she was on the line. The call lasts 16 minutes, 30 seconds. It was finally determined he was calling from Perry County.
On Oct. 3, a woman made a call from Thorn Township to receive emergency medical assistance for her 93-year-old father, who was experiencing dizziness. A 911 dispatcher reportedly transferred the call to Licking County’s 911 center after the dispatcher could not determine the address was in Perry, although the Licking dispatcher was able to determine it was. That was nearly five minutes before personnel were dispatched.
Muskingum County Communications Center director Kim Hambel said if dispatchers are unsure of an address, they will call over to the city themselves before transferring the caller over.
“We try to find out as much information from the caller to figure out if it’s in our county or not,” he said.
Consensus: Better training is needed
“The keyword I’d start off with is consistency,” Arkley said. “It comes down to training issues, experience issues and getting problems solved.”
Somerset-Reading EMS Chief Mike Henderson added, “It’s not the dispatcher’s fault. I don’t think they’re getting the guidance, the training and the help they need to do their job.”
Keylor pointed out the levy would allow the training budget to be increased, meaning a new dispatcher will shadow a seasoned employee longer to learn the ropes. However, that period could be as short as two weeks, as employees often put in a two-week notice.
A call can automatically go to the wrong county when the closest cellphone tower is across the border. On the other hand, a 911 dispatcher can transfer a call to another county erroneously when they believe the call is coming from outside their jurisdiction.
“It happens a lot. When you have a cellphone call coming in, it’ll hit that county’s side,” Licking County EMA Director Sean Grady said. Call centers all vary by technology, call volume, staffing and experience. “So it’s hard to compare these centers.”
According to a 2020 county report, Perry County has two 911 dispatchers and one additional employee for dispatching public safety personnel on call at all times. They average 2,885 calls a month based on the first nine months of this year.
Muskingum County’s communications center staffs two or three employees during one shift and averaged 2,310 calls monthly last year.
Licking County can have up to six or eight people working at once, but they often float between different roles, averaging 6,515 calls a month. Grady said they go through a robust training program to get to that position, working with a shadow until they’re ready to fly solo.
“To develop a good dispatcher, that’s going to a be a year-plus. I don’t have the luxury of sitting every person down and putting them through what they call training for a year. Perry County doesn’t have the resources,” Keylor said, adding human error will always exist.
The need for tax revenue
Operating costs were reportedly around $660,000 in 2019 after an increase of around 25% over five years, according to Commissioner Ben Carpenter. Around $90,000 comes from the state annually.
If the levy is passed, the money coming from the county’s general fund would be reallocated elsewhere, Carpenter said. The levy will generate around $200,000 more annually than operating costs last year, but Carpenter said they are planning ahead.
“We’re not planning on doing things differently or add some different thing. The 911 levy is going to be for something special or something new, it’s going to be for annual operations of the 911 center,” he added.
Keylor said the training budget will be better, but the process will be the same.
Carpenter cited new technology as a cost to the county. Separate CARES Act funding was secured for a new $700,000 radio system, according to Keylor.
Additionally, a 50-cent tax on each landline emergency call also goes toward 911 centers, but that fund is drying up. Every county in Ohio faces this, however.
According to Keylor, the department has a few things in mind. Raising base pay for employees is under consideration.
If the levy doesn’t pass, Carpenter said commissioners may consider reworking the sales tax budget.
“We have a very young staff,” Keylor said of his employ. “For the most part, they’re very passionate about their job.
“The passing of a 911 levy would guarantee that 911 would continue to operate. That to me is the biggest fear, when you try to plan and look to the future.”
Henderson said: “Let’s face it, they’re dealing with high-stress situations. I’m certain I can speak on behalf (of the three fire chiefs) on the board, we’d be willing to help out with anything they need.”