911: It’s OK to call in nonemergency if police, fire, medics are needed

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Did you know ?

Clark County’s 911 dispatchers used Language Line interpreters 998 times last year, to help callers using 19 different languages.

There now are five vacant positions for 911 dispatchers; visit Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency to learn about the jobs.

The 2010 CRESA Annual Report is at CRESA report.

You be the judge.

Was it a real 911 call in Clark County? Or just another urban legend?

So a man sees his neighbor’s home on fire and he calls 911.

A busy dispatcher answers and asks, “Do you have an emergency?”

“No,” the man answers, and the dispatcher puts him on hold.

A minute later the dispatcher is back on the line and she asks him what the problem is.

“My neighbor’s house is on fire,” he says.

“What?” the dispatcher says, her voice becoming tense. “Why didn’t you tell me you had an emergency?”

“I don’t have an emergency,” the man says. “My neighbor does!”

I’m voting it was an urban legend but, apropos, there is a misunderstanding many people have about making emergency and nonemergency calls to 911.

Call away on both, says Anna Pendergrass, interim director and operations manager for Clark County’s 911 system, operated by Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

That is, unless it’s a prank call that wastes valuable time and can get you in trouble.

It’s OK for folks to call 911 to report nonemergency situations, let’s say aggressive panhandlers or someone staggering around drunk in public.

In fact, Clark County’s system does not have a public nonemergency line, Pendergrass said.

“The call volume hasn’t required that we do that just yet,” she said, adding that she anticipates a nonemergency number someday.

Last year, dispatchers handled 279,211 calls to 911, averaging 765 per day, according to CRESA’s 2010 Annual Report.

It’s a lot of calls but, over the past five years, the number of calls to 911 has fallen by 7.7 percent, Pendergrass said.

Officials at 911 have some ideas why call numbers have been falling.

“Although we don’t have scientific evidence, we believe the majority of the slowdown in growth is attributable to the slowdown in population growth,” said Keith Flewelling, CRESA’s technical and support division manager. “And perhaps fewer people are paying for cellphones with the economic downturn.”

Anyhow, the current number of dispatchers is enough to handle all those calls, emergency or not, Pendergrass said.

CRESA now has four dispatcher-supervisor positions and 52 dispatcher positions, five of them vacant.

That staffing level serves about 435,600 people in an area of 628 square miles in Clark County.

Clark County dispatchers also protect another 522 square miles by dispatching for North Country Emergency Medical Service and Cowlitz-Skamania Fire District 7, which have service areas in Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania counties, Flewelling said.

Clark County’s 911 dispatchers serve 10 police departments and 14 fire departments that provide first-responder emergency medical services.

Esther Short neighbors work with police

Lee E. Coulthard is public safety committee chairman with the Esther Short Neighborhood Association, a group that worked with the Vancouver Police Department to make downtown safer — including folks not wanting to be plagued by aggressive panhandlers and drunks.

The association ended up printing postcards that read, “The Vancouver Police Department wants all emergency and nonemergency calls to be made to 911. This reporting system enables law enforcement officials to track criminal activity and helps them allocate resources. Your involvement is extremely important in helping to keep our neighborhood safe.”

How good is the 911 system?

Clark County’s 911 system tracks, counts and analyzes its performance by many standards, including a benchmark state standard that says, “The average speed of answer for 911 calls will be three rings (10 seconds) or less.”

That standard was met, says the agency’s year-end annual report: “During 2010 the average ring time for all 911 lines was 5.69 seconds or less than two rings with 90 percent of all 911 calls answered within 10 seconds.

“Although not part of CRESA’s performance standards, the ring times for nonemergency lines are also monitored to ensure efficiency. In 2010 the average time for all nonemergency calls was 5.56 seconds; 90 percent of all non-emergency calls were answered within 10 seconds.”

Pendergrass said dispatchers often hear from people who apologize or feel guilty for calling 911 in nonemergencies.

“I get a lot of that,” she said. “We just basically tell them not to feel bad.”

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.