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Could a new 911 menu help shorten wait times for Kansas City callers?

Inside the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) 911 dispatch center.
Sam Zeff
Kansas City officials are pushing for a menu option for people calling the Kansas City Police Department's 911 dispatch center, which would keep KCPD from having to redirect thousands of calls to other departments.

Kansas City is pressuring the Mid-America Regional Council to utilize a menu option for 911 callers, rather than route all calls through the Kansas City Police Department. Officials hope to drastically improve the time it takes for KCPD to answer 911 calls.

Facing pressure from Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and the Board of Police Commissioners, the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) may soon drastically change the way the city's 911 system operates.

In May, KCPD call takers handled about 1,900 emergency calls a day, by far the most in the metro area. But it took on average 2 minutes and 6 seconds for a caller to speak to someone, according to MARC data. Compare that to just five seconds in Independence and eight seconds in Kansas City, Kansas.

That's in part, because Kansas City routes all emergency calls through KCPD's dispatch, which then has to redirect calls to the proper department

While jurisdictions in Missouri and Kansas operate their own 911 dispatch centers, MARC manages the technology and coordinates the regional 911 system. According to Kansas City police, MARC already has the software to add a menu system to 911 calls coming into KCPD.

Under the proposed system, callers would first hear an automated menu, for example: "Press 1 for police, 2 for fire, or 3 for EMS." The hope is that by immediately directing the call to the proper city service — rather than waiting for KCPD dispatchers to reroute calls — wait time for callers would improve.

"Why do we have this system where KCPD has to take in all the initial calls anyway?" Lucas asked at Tuesday's police board meeting.

KCPD has long had problems with promptly answering 911 calls. The department has blamed low pay for call takers and dispatchers, which has made it difficult to operate fully staffed. The communications department has 28 vacancies, according to KCPD, even as the number of calls to 911 soars. In February there were 41,351 calls. That spiked to 61,301 in May, a 48% increase.

According to NENA: The 9-1-1 Association, which MARC uses as their benchmark, the national standard is for 90% of 911 calls to be answered in 15 seconds. In May, MARC data shows, only 41% of KCPD calls hit that goal.

At Tuesday's Board of Police Commissioner's meeting, KCPD leaders were told to press MARC to act on the technology changes as soon as possible.

"I don't expect any hurdles," KCPD Major Greg Williams with the Logistical Support Division told the board.

MARC says staff met Wednesday and expects to act soon.

"By the end of the week, we will release a statement with a proposed plan, schedule and public meetings," MARC spokesperson Kristin Johnson-Waggoner said in a statement to KCUR.

Johnson-Waggoner also said that the menu option could be added to the KCPD system without forcing changes at other city and county dispatch centers.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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