News : Luzerne County Council Investigates 911 Call Center
Wilkes-Barre, PA, Jan 14, 2015 -- Don’t call it an investigation.It’s officially an inquiry.
But no matter the wording, Luzerne County Council, in a rare unanimous vote, agreed Tuesday to begin looking into operations at the county 911 call center, which has faced criticism in recent months following two dispatching errors that ended with people dying while waiting for help.
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash, who proposed the probe, said she is seeking feedback and answers, whether positive or negative, about the center’s operations and how to prevent similar mistakes from happening again. As part of that, Dobash said she wanted to see how many errors there were last year and how they were resolved, regardless of the implications.
"You’re talking about lives," Dobash said. "If things appear negative, again, I’ll say too bad. We need to improve."
Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck immediately appointed Dobash and council members Harry Haas and Eileen Sorokas to an ad hoc committee to begin the inquiry within a month’s time. Haas had proposed amendments to Dobash’s resolution aimed at expanding the inquiry to accept feedback from local responders about improving services as well as to consider shortening the time between the call center’s pages to those responders.
Last week, in response to questions about the cause of a roughly 20-minute delay in reaching a woman who stopped breathing at a West Wyoming church, call center Executive Director Fred Rosencrans explained that the center waits for three minutes between pages as it waits for a unit to respond. By the time the center moves on to a new unit after three failed tries, nine minutes would have elapsed.
Dobash called for an investigation after two high-profile cases surfaced in recent months, both of which ended with a patient dying. A Mocanaqua woman was killed in a fire in May after dispatchers mistakenly sent firefighters to a fictitious address about 15 miles away from the blaze. On Thanksgiving, a Kingston man died of a heart attack after medics were incorrectly dispatched to a Wilkes-Barre address.
County officials have characterized both mistakes as the result of human error.
Some council members balked at launching a full-blown investigation, which would have given council subpoena powers, claiming Dobash and her allies were engaging in a "witch hunt" to go after county Manager Robert Lawton and his administration. But Dobash said Tuesday that was not her intent and that she had no problem adjusting the wording.
County solicitor David Pedri said some areas of the investigation might require council go into an executive session, noting the family of 52-year-old Michelle Dzoch, who was killed in the fire, has already sued the county and that the county could face additional legal action.
Haas said he sees the inquiry as a way to bring various components of the emergency response system together and proposed that the committee bring the inquiry to responders across the county to get their input.
"The dispatching is only as good as the folks on the ground," Haas said. "We just want to make sure that we can equip the dialogue, which I think has been lacking."
Councilman Stephen A. Urban said he thought the committee should seek out protocols from other call centers in the state to compare procedures here and see what can be improved.
During public comment, 911 dispatcher Robert Bomboy began unloading a list of possible improvements the system could use, after first noting he felt he was in the "Twilight Zone" amid an unusually professional council.
For instance, public locations such as hotels and apartments should have their addresses clearly posted so 911 callers unfamiliar with the area know where they are, he said. Bomboy also noted how interpersonal relationships between departments can affect which units assist others, and that it’s not uncommon to see a "buddy box" in which multiple agencies are called to simple incidents because volunteer departments don’t want to slight others.
Another issue he raised was staffing at the call center.
"We’re falling behind on numbers rapidly," Bomboy said, adding that call-takers are working "ridiculous hours" despite new employees continually being hired. "It sounds like we’re adding and adding and adding, but we continue to fall back."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Thursday, January 15, 2015