Program will allow Pinellas dispatchers to share calls with police departments

Complaints of inefficiency in the county's 911 system could disappear with a specially designed program Pinellas County officials plan to roll out this week.

Under the current system, calls for emergency help go to the main 911 center in Clearwater. Ambulances are immediately dispatched by that center for those needing medical aid. But Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats has complained that callers who also need help from law enforcement must be routed to individual agencies, where they may have to repeat their story. This, Coats has said, results in frustration and delayed police response.

The new program provides real-time interfacing between county 911 computers and police dispatchers. As the county 911 operator gets information, it is typed in and instantly shows up on a dispatcher's computer screen at the appropriate police department, allowing for immediate officer dispatch.

The county and the St. Petersburg Police Department have been testing the new program for the past few weeks. Its success has the county planning to make it available Wednesday to the sheriff and all other Pinellas police agencies.

"I would wholeheartedly endorse it," said Mike McDonald, assistant director of the administrative services bureau in the St. Petersburg Police Department. "It's very helpful to have."

The efficiency of the countywide 911 system for police dispatch came into question last month when Coats' office complained publicly about delayed police response, caller frustrations and dropped calls. He suggested consolidating at least the sheriff's and emergency medical dispatch systems to save money and increase efficiency.

But not everyone saw the same problems Coats cited. Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas said her department had no complaints. And McDonald said in a memo to St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon that there were no issues there. St. Petersburg, which, McDonald says, has the highest volume of calls in the county for a law enforcement agency, has a 32-second average dispatch time for its highest priority calls.

"Complaints are rare," McDonald wrote. "In polling experienced SPPD call-takers, they confirm it is infrequent for citizens to complain about having been transferred, or having to repeat a story."

Dick Williams, the county's director of emergency medical services and fire administration, said Pinellas officials were "perplexed" by the sheriff's complaints.

"There is no delay. It's a misperception," Williams said. "We really don't understand where he's coming from."

But county officials were concerned enough about the sheriff's complaints, which began at least two years ago, that they created a computer program to allow police agencies to receive information as its given to the 911 center.

"We can visually see the calling information for each of those transferred calls," McDonald said.

Not only does it allow the police dispatcher to immediately see information as it's entered into the system, it allows access to the county's maps, which are updated daily.

But McDonald said the program, as valuable as it is, is merely a "toe in the water" to a truly integrated system. The main stumbling block, he said, is the varying computer systems across the county.

That hinders the exchange of information from the police agency to 911 or to other agencies. In some cases, it means the information can't be adjusted. St. Petersburg's system, for example, allows the dispatcher to cut and paste the county information into the city system. But once there, it can't be changed. It can only be changed if it was typed into St. Petersburg's system.

Still, McDonald said, the program puts the county on the path to commonality that could end in a complete data exchange among all agencies.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Program will allow Pinellas dispatchers to share calls with police departments 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 3:30am]

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