It Took Six Months for Dallas PD to Admit Its 911 System Was in Shambles. Now, They're Fixing It.

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It took a house burning to the ground and a woman being murdered, plus an additional six months, but Dallas police have finally acknowledged just how abysmally run its 911 call center was.

Deputy Chief Scott Walton said as much today during a briefing before the City Council's Public Safety Committee, though, naturally, he didn't use those words exactly. He preferred to focus on the great strides that have been made at the call center since Deanna Cook was murdered last August while on the phone with 911 operators.

The most glaring issue was staffing. At the time of Cook's murder, the center had the equivalent of 65 out of 92 call-taker positions filled, a shortfall that was mostly filled by forcing employees to work overtime. That was fine as a short-term fix but, Walton noted, resulted in "overtime fatigue" and no doubt contributed to the center's astronomically high attrition rate, with fully half of the workers leaving within a year. With no employee pipeline to speak of, and with call taker training lasting 13 weeks, it was as much as the center could do to fill the positions being vacated.

"To make things a little worse, when we started looking at how we staff days off, it didn't exactly match up with when calls come in," Walton said. So, on Friday and Saturday nights, when the center is invariably flooded with calls, call takers tended to become overwhelmed. Often, supervisors weren't even on the floor, as required under call center rules.

The center was, and remains, relatively poorly equipped for handling cell phone calls, which is a problem, seeing that they are now the source of more than 75 percent of the 2 million 911 calls DPD fields each year. For starters, operators can't trace the location of a cell phone user. And sometimes cell phone calls don't get relayed from the cell tower to the 911 call center, even though the caller will hear the phone ringing. "The 911 system," Chief David Brown notes, "was built for landlines."

The cell phone issue, a challenge for law enforcement agencies everywhere, doesn't have any near-term fixes. But Walton said the department has fixed most of the more immediate issues at the 911 call center.

The changes start from the top. To bring "fresh perspective," as Brown puts it, call center management -- the chief, the captain, all the lieutenants -- have been replaced. They've revamped operations and put in place a more rational scheduling scheme, adding an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. swing shift and assigning more call takers to Friday and Saturday nights.

Aiding those efforts is the addition of 45 new call takers, the final dozen of whom are scheduled to complete training over the next couple of weeks. They've also worked with the city's civil service department to build a pool of applicants for call taker positions. Probably most significant on the staffing side: The call takers get a raise.

"When you listen to the exit interview of why were you leaving ... we constantly heard that 'I would answer more calls in Dallas in one hour than I would answer all day somewhere else,'" Brown said. "So that's where this salary adjustment was really the right thing to address the attrition issue."

The numbers say the new approach is working. Last August, when Cook was murdered, the average answer time for 911 calls was 11 seconds. In February, it was down to 2 seconds. "That's a huge improvement in the level of service that's being provided to the city of Dallas," Walton said.

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