New 911 Call Center Aims For Speed
City system promises faster pickups, fewer dropped calls, ability to dispatch based on officer location.
The City of Milwaukee is preparing to launch the first phase of its new 911 call center in March.
It promises to be a dramatic step forward for the city. The biggest change will be that it’s a single unit, knowing as the Emergency Communications Center, merging currently separate police and fire dispatch centers.
“All systems are outdated and being replaced, with the biggest issue being dropped calls,” said budget director Dennis Yaccarino to members of the Public Safety & Health Committee on Thursday. A new communications system promises to avoid those dropped calls, but also allow individuals to send text messages, photos, videos and voice recordings to the 911 system.
“It will be a very robust 911 system,” Yaccarino promised.
The current process involves all calls first going to the police dispatch center, with fire calls being transferred. The new system aims to allow a single responder to carry the entire call.
Milwaukee, which borders more than a dozen other municipalities, will also see its dispatchers better able to communicate with their neighbors. “Right now when we call other dispatchers we have to use a separate line,” said Yaccarino.
A new computer-aided dispatch software system, expected to be available in November, would help improve response times and reporting. All police cars currently have GPS units, but the dispatchers don’t have access to that data to see vehicle locations. The new system will allow dispatchers to see units in the area and assign specific squads to respond. “When it becomes fully operational, we expect just the system itself should allow us to improve response times by being able to dispatch the closest unit,” said Yaccarino.
Staffing levels are also expected to improve. The current process has individuals hired and trained in groups, which can cause delays when things get bogged down at the Fire & Police Commission. A permanent trainer will be embedded within the dispatch center and be able to take on a single new employee at a time. “That will hopefully fill vacancies much quicker than they currently are,” he said.
The new system will allow the city to judge itself by national standards, including answering 90% of calls within 10 seconds. “We want to get to that level,” said Yaccarino, without saying where the city is now.
Beyond the operational efficiencies, the new dispatch center could save the city money in the long run. The current police dispatch center is staffed by sworn officers, who have higher salaries and pension costs than other city employees. The new center could ultimately be staffed with civilian personnel who wouldn’t be subject to automatic raises in the police union contract. The existing fire dispatch center is staffed by civilian personnel.
A steering committee of project stakeholders guides the implementation process. The existing centers will be maintained on a transitional basis.
“I’m not sure of the timing on full implementation, because that’s something we want to be working well before we do it,” said Yaccarino. “We do plan on making sure this process is very transparent so the aldermen and the public know exactly where we are at, when things are going to happen. It’s too important of a system to not go that direction.”
The city fielded approximately 173,000 calls for service in 2019.