Our View: 911 report flawed, but serious problems exist at Stanislaus Regional call center

05/24/2014 12:00 AM

05/24/2014 8:15 PM

Calls to 911 often come from frightened, excited or angry people. It’s up to the dispatchers to figure out what needs to be done, then send help as fast they can.

The damning report on the Stanislaus Regional 911 emergency call center presented by Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll was like a 911 call – disturbing, a bit frantic and some of the details are wrong. But it is clearly a call for help, and everyone involved is going to have to respond.

There are difficult and sustained problems at the center. Whether this acerbic report will lead to solutions or make the problem worse is still to be determined. But the problem cannot be allowed to fester. We must have an effective 911 call center.

Carroll has been unhappy with the center almost since his arrival 17 months ago from Long Beach. He hired the former head of the Long Beach PD dispatch to study the center – with little input from the county. It says the center is “irreparable,” calls the environment “hostile,” and says the administration is “lacking.” It amplifies the frustrations of police officers who say “wait times” during calls are “getting to the unacceptable level” without ever saying how long those waits are. Using vague estimates, it implies Modesto is being charged too much and hints the center is not cost effective. It says the center doesn’t schedule for peak call volumes.

Its description of virtually nonexistent administrative meetings was corroborated by Carroll, who said he was three minutes late to his first meeting and found it had already been adjourned. These are serious problems. But the worst, Carroll says, is that the center is a county agency – not independent and responsive to both the city and county.

The conclusion reads like a plan for abandoning the center, declaring 13 points “non-negotiable.” It reads like a hit piece.

County officials reacted with predictable anger, citing more than 30 “inaccuracies” and rejecting statements that meetings were not properly noticed or conducted. They say Modesto is actually getting a break on costs. The county provides hard numbers, not guesses. And they point out that the center’s manager came from the Police Department.

“This is the most incompetent, inaccurate and inflammatory report I’ve read in my 25 years of government experience,” said Stanislaus County’s chief executive officer, Stan Risen, not a man given to anger. “This is not how you fix things in a partnership. ... You don’t need to spend $49,000 to say this; you could just walk across the hall and talk to us.”

County officials fear that Carroll’s real intent is to abandon the center; they think that would be a mistake. It might surprise them to find that Carroll agrees with them, but with conditions. Was this report a way of sending an urgent message that fixes must be made?

“That is exactly the signal I want to send,” he said. “Actually, I want two messages sent: If this doesn’t run the way it’s supposed to run – and you have had 16 years of being a JPA and the same problems in 1998 were the problems in 2001 are the problems we’re having today – then we have to fix it. But I also want a strong message sent that if we can’t get it fixed, then hey, maybe I’m better off on my own. What my ultimate goal is, if it’s going to be a joint powers authority, it needs to be as independent as possible.”

There’s far more involved here than just police calls. The center also dispatches fire and medical services – all totaled, nearly 260,000 calls a year. And with the relationship between Modesto Regional Fire Authority and other county emergency services still evolving, the issue gets very complicated.

We’re troubled both by what this report says and how it says it. A single flawed report does not justify dismantling an agency that serves 74 percent of the county’s population. It makes sense to share administration and to have all our emergency responders communicating seamlessly. No one argues the center is perfect. And if even a portion of the report is true, then the center needs reorganization.

We have great respect for all involved – Chief Carroll, CEO Risen, Supervisor Bill O’Brien and Sheriff Adam Christianson. These are smart, dedicated people. The sheriff and chief say their relationship is good. So put that to the test. Let them work out a path to shared authority, more effective staffing models and a structure that provides accountability for all members and the public. If the chief and sheriff can’t do that, the other options are ugly:

• Invite the civil grand jury to investigate and report.
• Unwind, creating multiple centers that do the same things with little staff or technical coordination – a costly step backward.
• Develop a law enforcement-only center for the county’s biggest cities and the Sheriff’s Office, leaving medical and fire dispatch on their own – also a bad option.

No one dials 911 unless there’s trouble. We can’t afford to have an ongoing emergency in the emergency call center.

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