Minneapolis reworks 911 staffing

A new process to cut response times is expected to be completed by 2017.

by Tyler Gieseke

Minneapolis City Council members reviewed a new staffing plan last week designed to lower 911 answer and dispatch times — upgrades the University of Minnesota’s Emergency Communications Center says it doesn’t need.

As part of the reform — which aims to streamline the response process and is expected to be completed by 2017 — the city is rescheduling shifts, adding 911 staff members based on when calls are most frequent and training employees to both answer calls and dispatch emergency services, Minneapolis Director of Emergency Communications Heather Hunt said at a city committee meeting Wednesday.

The city started revamping its system and implementing the cross-training last year and is currently in the hiring and training phase of the rollout.

Under the old system, city 911 operators only answer phones while dispatchers talk with callers and coordinate emergency services. Also, staff members are scheduled more evenly throughout the day, regardless of how many calls are received.

“We know that stakes involved in emergency responses are high and that we are often dealing with life-and-death situations,” Mayor Betsy Hodges wrote on her blog March 6.

Although Minneapolis is reworking its model, University Emergency Communications Center manager Jeff Lessard said the University’s 911 response system works well in its current form. At least two employees are scheduled to answer and dispatch calls at all times, he said, and staff members are already trained to do both parts of the job.

The city’s 2014 average call answer time is about seven seconds, while the University’s is usually about four seconds.

University operators are rarely bombarded by a heavy influx of calls, Lessard said, but the center sometimes schedules more employees to work during traditionally busier times, like during rush hour and early days in the week when students, faculty and staff are returning to campus. 

Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon, who represents neighborhoods around the University, said at the meeting that he’s heard concerns from constituents regarding the number of 911 employees staffed at one time.

In an open letter posted on Hodges’ blog, Minneapolis police and fire dispatcher Robin Jones said sometimes just one or two 911 employees are answering phones in the early morning hours.

“It is my job to serve [the citizens of Minneapolis] in public safety to the best of my ability,” Jones wrote. “The recent staffing levels are perilously close to making that impossible.”

But Hunt said the city always staffs at least nine 911 employees.

Gordon added he would like to see more information on the department’s problem areas, like longest wait times and the number of hang-ups that 911 doesn’t call back.

“We always kind of pay attention to what we measure,” he said, “so maybe we need to be measuring some other issues.”