City, county officials review, debate E911 issues

Published 11:50 pm Wednesday, October 4, 2017


NATCHEZ — City, county and law enforcement officials gathered Wednesday at City Hall to discuss potential issues with the area’s E911 system after community members voiced concerns earlier this week.

Addressing some of the issues discussed Monday at a highly attended neighborhood watch meeting, Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong made a point to correct a statement made Monday.

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Armstrong had told those at the neighborhood watch meeting he believed dispatchers had failed to relay a call to the police department about a shooting on Jefferson Street Sunday night, resulting in an officer not reporting to the scene. But after digging through the call logs from that night, Armstrong said Wednesday he discovered that a call had indeed been properly dispatched and an officer did respond to the call.

But the problem for the officer, as was the problem for dispatchers that night, was the amount of shootings and the shear volume of 911 calls coming in.

“As soon as the officer got to the scene, the problem presented itself at three or four other places,” Armstrong said. “What these guys was doing, they were driving and shooting. So we’ve got officers on the scene, and before they can get there (for awhile) — bam. The same problem presented itself at two or three other locations, so the officers were just moving all over the place.”

And the chaos was twofold. E911 Dispatch Supervisor Catherine Latham defended her department, citing an extremely high amount of calls in a short timespan.

“During that 12-hour shift, that whole day, we had 292 calls … (and) 123 of those calls was in reference to the shootings,” Latham said.

Latham also said 27 other, unrelated calls came in during the time of the shootings.

While officials all acknowledged the difficult circumstances of that evening for both officers and dispatchers, the discussion turned to how the E911 system could be changed. This discussion led to debate, some of which led to apparent frustration.

Adams County Emergency Management Director Robert Bradford insisted nothing is wrong with the “next-gen” E911 system.

“We just need to get out to the public that the system works,” Bradford said. “Show me an incident that happened where an officer didn’t get dispatched.”

Bradford said the system works by triangulating the position of those who call 911, and the call will be directed to either a city or county dispatcher. The dispatching system is housed in the Adams County Sheriff’s Office basement.

Bradford said the system handles multiple calls coming in from the same location on a “first-come, first-served” basis, meaning if more calls are coming in than there are lines available, those calls will then roll over to another line.

“When you have a lot of people calling, a lot of them, they are going to go unanswered,” Bradford said.

Bradford also said he believes many people still have the old police department’s number programmed in their phones from before the 911 consolidation.

“That’s why I always tell people to physically dial 9-1-1,” Bradford said.

But the main change many officials requested was that the system avoid rolling over to an automated voice messaging system.

“Personally, I would prefer for it just to keep ringing rather than go to an automated system,” Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said.

Armstrong and Adams County Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus agreed.

Currently, those who do not get through to 911 dispatchers may be directed to the Natchez Police Department. At the meeting, six officials tested this mechanism, with three officials getting through and the other three receiving the automated message.

Natchez Police Capt. Scott Frye said no one would hear a voicemail if left on that system. Frye said the system should not route people to the police department, rather one of the four admin phone lines in the dispatching center. The center has eight phone lines total, including the four emergency and four admin lines.

Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten suggested the center have a fourth dispatcher in the center to strictly handle taking calls. Patten also suggested the city hold a public meeting for the sole purpose of educating citizens about E911.

After approximately an hour and 20 minutes of discussion, the leaders went down to the dispatching center to see the system for themselves, as most of them had not before.

In the center, they learned that during Sunday night’s shootings, all eight lines in the center were ringing, with dispatchers having to handle two lines at a time. One dispatcher also said they deal with their computers frequently freezing up.

While in the basement, two officials again tested the system by dialing 911, with one phone getting through and one going to the NPD’s automated system.

“That’s what we want to avoid,” Lazarus said.

Moving forward, the officials hope to meet again, this time with representatives from Emergency Callworks, the company behind E911, to see what can be done about improving the system. Bradford, however, did not seem to think that visit is necessary.

“I’m just going to be honest with y’all: they’re just going to tell you the same things I just told you,” Bradford said.