Monday, November 24, 2008

Fulton call center blasted in firm’s report

Heads have rolled at Fulton County's 911 Call Center in the wake of an Aug. 2 tragedy that left one woman dead - and the county has pledged to rebuild.

Fulton County 911 Emergency Services Director Rocky Moore has been asked to leave after the release of Oregon-based Emergency Services Consulting Inc.'s report last week that points to the county's operation being understaffed, unresponsive and poorly managed.

Moore's removal is just part of County Manager Zachary Williams six-month action plan, which calls for a responsive and well-trained workforce, re-vising service areas and workflow, reducing employee turnover by boosting morale and lessening mandatory overtime, and seeking the Accredited Center of Excellence certification.

"As we go through this process, our single-minded focus is on solutions that best serve our customers - the people who rely on the 911 system to access emergency response," Williams said during a press conference Nov. 13. "We are going into this process with open minds and a commitment to allocate the necessary resources to provide excellent service."

Moore has been serving only as Director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency since Aug. 12, when he stepped down following the Aug. 2 death of Johns Creek Resident Darlene Dukes. Dukes died of a pulmonary embolism after waiting nearly an hour for an ambulance that veteran 911 operator Gina Conteh misrouted to downtown Atlanta.

Conteh was fired soon after and has appealed the decision, but the shocking blunder stirred up questions about whether there was a pattern of negligence at the Fulton County 911 dispatch center. An independent investigation was called for just days after the incident.

As outlined in the independent report, Conteh violated policy by failing to verify the caller's address, incorrectly coding the incident, never entering the apartment community's name into the automated system and failing to advise a supervisor of the "at-risk" situation in a timely manner.

But those problems were symptomatic, found Emergency Services Consulting.

Overall, it was found the 911 Call Center lacked in staff, was not consistent in its training and did not impress upon staff the correct terminology of the fire department or emergency medical services. Additionally, morale at the center is incredibly low due to shift holdovers - required overtime - and inconsistent management.

Dispatchers relayed to the consulting firm that communication in the department was slow, and they often felt inadequately prepared at the end of their training. All of these problems lessened the quality of work within the communications center, found the firm.

Fulton County Councilwoman Lynne Riley represents the North Fulton area, and has seen 911 and public safety services shrink as the cities of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton established themselves.

Milton recently partnered with Alpharetta for its own dispatch service while Johns Creek is looking to team with Sandy Springs.

Riley said while a glowing report would have been surprising given the tragedy and fallout that prompted the inquiry, she was shocked at the consultant's findings.

"We knew there were problems there, but I personally wasn't ready for the depth and breadth of issues we'll be dealing with," she said.

Most disconcerting were the lack of comprehensive training, low staffing numbers and very low morale reported by employees. Riley said those problems must be fixed immediately, and she supports William's six-month action plan to get the 911 call center on track.

"We don't want to have a non-productive work environment," Riley said. "We want to have a positive work environment so our people can do a good job."

But, she said, the realities of a shrinking Fulton County might call for more drastic action.

"We see less service area, which means less revenue," she said. "We have to look at the sustainability of the center and the possibility of outsourcing or merging with another call center in operating in Fulton County."

The question could entail "whether Fulton County will continue to be in the 911 business in the future," she said.

Like Milton and Alpharetta, Johns Creek decided months before the Aug. 2 incident to move its 911 operations away from Fulton County. The city is moving forward with a joint call center with Sandy Springs and in October agreed to establish a 911 authority, which will contract with a company to organize the start-up of the center. The city expects to have the 911 center up and running by July 2009. Until then, Fulton County will still service the city's 911 calls.

"We're confident that the (Emergency Services Consulting Inc.) report will lead to improvements," said Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker. "And I know that they're watching the operations closer and hopefully we won't have any more serious events."

Williams said the county will launch a national search for a new Emergency Services Director to replace Moore. Additionally, the emergency services training program will also undergo a major reshaping to benefit employees.

"We recognize that the emergency communications staff are people, not machines, and that we must take a progressive human resources approach to meeting their needs so that they can effectively perform their extremely important jobs," said Williams.

The county's new goal is to reduce employee loss from 27 percent to less than 15 percent, implement better measures of accountability for leadership and staff and improve customer service marks.

"911 emergency response is a collaborative process requiring strong relationships with public safety agencies throughout the county. These agencies are key customers. Their success depends on our success and vice versa," Williams said.

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