Audit: Unexplained 911 delays cripple ATL fire’s response time
By JIM WALLS
Atlanta firefighters take much longer than they should to respond to emergencies, measured against national standards, and the delays are getting worse. Training, more dispatchers and a 911 audit to ferret out the cause of extraordinary delays — not necessarily more firefighters — may be the best solution, city auditor Leslie Ward says.
Atlanta is using a three-year federal grant to hire 75 new firefighters for the next three years, making up for budget and staffing cuts since 2008. The city is obligated to pay those firefighters for at least one more year, at an estimated cost of $7.2 million after the grant expires.
That staffing upgrade is intended to give the city four firefighters per engine company and ladder truck, as recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. Meeting that standard would help meet goals for effective fire suppression, but would improve response times for only 7 percent of calls, Ward found.
Ward’s audit, to be presented next week, will help the City Council decide how best to target spending on the fire department. The report recommends realigning the department’s resources devoted to under-served areas and suggests returning up to 50 sworn firefighters from desk jobs back to the stations.
Delays in 911 responses have plagued the city for years, particularly since several incidents caught public attention in 2009. The call center’s director was fired in August that year, and his replacement resigned — also without explanation — last March.
Firefighters should arrive on the scene within 6 1/2 minutes on at least 90 percent of Priority 1 calls, according to the NFPA. In Atlanta last year, auditors found, it took 8 minutes, 24 seconds, about a half-minute longer than the year before, to respond to just 50 percent of calls. The other half took even longer.
The biggest and most inexplicable delay came in processing 911 calls, Ward reported. Her audit broke down the four components of response time for 2010 this way:
- 911 operators should transfer 95 percent of calls to fire dispatch within 30 seconds, according to NFPA standards. In Atlanta, that happened just 1 percent of the time. The median call transfer took 2 minutes, 38 seconds. (About half the 911 transfers couldn’t even be measured because there was no record of the call processing time.)
- Fire dispatchers did a fairly decent job, transferring 75 percent of calls within 60 seconds, compared to a national standard of 90 percent.
- Firefighters were able to “turn out” and leave the station in 187 seconds or less for 90 percent of calls, compared to a national standard of 80 seconds.
- Ninety percent of the time, firefighters made it to the scene within 6 minutes and 43 seconds of leaving the station. The national standard is 4 minutes.
Certain procedural and technological problems have been offered to explain the 911 delays, but auditors have not been able to correlate those issues with the delays.
“We’ll have to go audit it in order to make any recommendations,” Ward said.