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Kansas City Fire Department worries new 911 system could actually make wait times worse

Kansas City police and firefighters work the scene of a collision Friday, March 26, 2021 on Manchester Trafficway near Highway 40.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kansas City police and firefighters work the scene of a collision Friday, March 26, 2021.

The hold times for people calling for help from Kansas City Police at times have topped two minutes. Police hope a proposed auto attendant could help, but the fire department says the change would be less efficient for them.

For years, Kansas City, Missouri, has struggled to answer 911 calls quickly. Police and city officials hope a new, automated attendant feature could speed things up but the Kansas City Fire Department worries it might actually make things more complicated.

The fire department has a simple solution: “The best, economical and operational solution is for the KCPD to fully staff their current positions and add additional staff to meet the demand of their workload,” according to an internal KCFD memo.

The Mid-America Regional Council, which manages the technology and coordinates the regional 911 system, last month approved a contract with Motorola to install software that would drastically change what callers to 911 in Kansas City would hear.

Instead of talking to a person, they initially would hear an auto attendant. Under the proposed system, callers would first hear a menu, for example: "Press 1 for police, 2 for fire, or 3 for EMS." The call would then be transferred to the appropriate call taker.

The goal is to implement the auto attendant by the end of April, according to the Motorola plan obtained with the Missouri Sunshine Law.

“It is our understanding that the citizens in the (sic) Kansas City, Missouri, are experiencing longer hold times when they call 9-1-1,” the proposal said.

A history of long hold times for KCPD

Inside the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) 911 dispatch center.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police have struggled for years to fully staff their dispatch center. They hope an automated phone attendant could help make the system more efficient.

Longer hold times are an understatement. No other police or fire agency in the 11 counties where MARC oversees 911 technology comes anywhere close to how long it takes Kansas City Police to answer an emergency call.

Data shows that in October the average wait time for someone calling KCPD with an emergency was 34 seconds. In one case, a caller waited over 11 minutes.

Compare that to an eight-second wait time in Kansas City, Kansas, or four seconds in Lee’s Summit.

According toNENA: The 9-1-1 Association, which MARC uses as its benchmark, the national standard is for 90% of 911 calls to be answered within 15 seconds. At KCPD, only 57% of 911 calls were answered within that time, according to MARC data.

While wait times have been a huge problem for KCPD, the Kansas City Fire Department does much better.

MARC data shows the average wait time for an emergency call to KCFD is just nine seconds and 91 percent of calls are answered within 15 seconds. But the fire department is worried the auto attendant system could slow all of that down and cost KCFD a lot of money, according to an internal fire department memo.

New system could slow down KCFD wait times

The Motorola auto attendant solution is “step one of about ten steps that need to happen,” when someone calls 911, Battalion Chief Michael Hopkins, a KCFD spokesman told KCUR Wednesday.

The cost of adding the auto attendant for police would be about $38,500, according to the Motorola contract. That would cover the cost of training city IT staff and project management.

The real expense would be with the KCFD.

An internal KCFD memo says an auto attendant system could add 31,000 additional calls a year to fire department 911 operators — calls that used to be screened by the police department.

“Without adding additional staffing and equipment the KCFD ring times will increase drastically,” according to the memo from a deputy chief to interim Fire Chief Ross Grundyson.

KCFD says it would have to expand its communications center and hire 12 new full-time employees. The total cost is estimated at more than $3.6 million.

The fire department also worried the auto attendant will lead to duplicative efforts. For example, someone could call 911 for a motor vehicle accident and press “1” to report it to police. Another caller could decide it’s the fire department that needs to respond and press “2.”

“Each department would then have to contact the other department to ensure both agencies have the incident," the memo states. Currently, with a “single point of entry” to KCPD, dispatch “duplication of efforts” are reduced.

A spokesperson for Mayor Quinton Lucas says he is “evaluating” the KCFD information.

Both police and fire have had trouble in the past few years filling vacant jobs. The fire department is down three people in communications. KCPD says it has 22 open positions.

Police hope the auto attendant will help with wait times. But even they aren’t sure.

“Hope is not a plan,” said Deputy Police Chief Derek McCollum, who oversees communications. “But we are hoping that this will help. Anything that we can do to help with our 911 hold times is a win for us and the community.”

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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