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Failing Grade Sparks Changes at Calgary 911 Center

Calgary Herald via YellowBrix

April 23, 2010

CALGARY – Municipal authorities say they’re confident Calgary’s 911 call centre is headed in the right direction, following an independent audit of its operations released Thursday.

“At least the issues have been identified now and solutions are being put in place,” said police Chief Rick Hanson, whose concerns sparked the audit last year.

While officials said the city-run public safety communications centre has acted on many of the auditor’s recommendations, it may take longer to convince police and firefighters who rely on it that matters have improved.

A survey of more than 1,000 police and firefighters and 200 of the centre’s own employees gave the operation failing grades in key areas.

“These satisfaction results are not acceptable to us, they must change, and they will,” said Steve Dongworth, manager of public safety communications.

Firefighters’ overall satisfaction was only 31 per cent. Police officers graded the centre somewhat higher, at 43 per cent.

They gave similarly low ratings in specific areas, such as satisfaction with dispatchers’ competence, timeliness of dispatch and detail of information received from dispatchers.

The eight-month review found the centre met common industry standards in more than three-quarters of the 56 areas it examined, and made 36 recommendations to address shortcomings.

Dongworth said the centre is acting on 16 of the highest-priority recommendations, including analyzing workload and staff levels to better respond to calls at peak times.

The audit was underway when even more concerns emerged over how the centre handled 911 calls related to two Calgary homicides.

Hanson demanded immediate changes to how the centre handles calls from cellphones following the killing of Yanrong Cheng, 41, in February.

Someone called 911 from Cheng’s cellphone and hung up. A call taker at the 911 centre followed policy and called back to check on her safety and was assured by a man and a young woman who answered that everything was OK.

The call taker never passed on the call to police, so no one went to Cheng’s northwest home to check on her. Fifteen hours later, someone called 911 to report Cheng had collapsed. She died in hospital.

Investigators subsequently charged her husband with murder.

While call takers routinely dispatch police to check the safety of people who phone 911 from a land line and hang up, there was no such policy directing them to do that when a suspicious hang-up call came from a cellphone.

Hanson directed the 911 centre to immediately pass on any hang-up calls made from cellphones when it appears someone may be in distress.

At the time of the Cheng case, the 911 centre was already under scrutiny for its handling of a double homicide last November.

Ying Louie called 911 twice expressing concerns about the safety of her young son and daughter prior to police arriving at their home in response to a third call.

When police arrived, Jason, 13, and nine-year-old Jane were dead, and Ying Louie was engaged in a struggle with an attacker.