911 system counts on caller info

Posted: Wednesday, December 18, 2002

When Anchorage police took 48 minutes to find the home of former Public Safety commissioner Glenn Godfrey the night he was fatally shot, many wondered what went wrong.

Modern technology allows emergency dispatchers to see a caller's address on a computer screen whenever 911 is dialed, yet police searched a neighborhood more than a block away.

"Quite frankly, that can happen anywhere," said Jan Henry, Kenai Peninsula Borough emergency management coordinator.

"What I understand is dispatchers didn't take the victim's information. They took the information from the computer and it was wrong," Henry said.

"What we do here ... the very first question we ask is, 'Where is your emergency?'" said Alaska State Trooper Capt. Tom Bowman, commander of the E Detachment in Soldotna.

"We take the information from the victim," Bowman said.

He explained that 911 emergency dispatchers at the trooper building on Kalifornsky Beach Road, who handle all police and emergency calls for the central peninsula, except the city of Kenai, use up-to-date aerial maps to find the exact location of an emergency.

"More important, though, is knowledge," Bowman said.

Troopers, dispatchers and Central Emergency Services know their areas, he said. Two dispatchers have more than 15 years experience, two or three have been there seven years.

He also said when new dispatchers are first trained, they are scheduled to work alongside the more experienced dispatchers.

"We also get a lot of help from CES," he said.

"If we get a call and they know the location, they'll call and tell us it's the green house with the red roof."

Another advantage on the peninsula is that the people are more concerned, he said, adding local citizens often help troopers and medical responders find a specific location.

Emergency 911 dispatching is a shared responsibility of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and troopers on the peninsula. Six of the dispatchers are borough employees and six are state employees. All are trained by troopers, who also administer the 911 dispatch system.

Asked if residents are required to display street addresses on their homes, Bowman said the requirement is only in place in the cities, not in rural areas.

"The borough is taking a hard look at it and is moving toward some kind of requirement," Henry said. "If you're a victim of a heart attack -- or some other emergency -- it's definitely in your interest.

"Whenever you move toward something like this, you do have some independent people saying, 'Not on my property.' But we need to move toward something like that."

The city of Kenai dispatches all 911 calls within the city. Because it is only 35 square miles, Communications Supervisor Lee Gattenby said the task of locating emergencies is less complex than in larger rural areas.

"Our dispatchers go on ride-alongs with officers to get familiar with the area," Gattenby said.

"Being that all our calls come from Kenai, familiarity is an advantage. Also, whenever we get a call that shows up incorrectly on our new 911 system, we can submit a correction to our central processing point."

The Kenai dispatching center, in the Kenai Police Department building, recently was upgraded in conjunction with a $260,000 communications improvement project involving the Kenai airport and the new 911 emergency system. It is the same as the trooper's system, Gattenby said.

A situation like that involving Glenn Godfrey cannot happen in Kenai, Gattenby said.

"Dependent on the caller giving correct information, we ask for cross streets and landmarks," he said. "The Kenai policy is to take the caller information first (over information provided by the computer system)."

The Kenai dispatch center currently is at its full staffing level of eight dispatchers, and Gattenby said the average length of service for the dispatchers is three years.

With all the dispatcher experience on the central peninsula, Bowman said, "If something bad is going to happen, this is the place to be."

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