Sunday Focus: Radio systems causing 911 call delays

Published 12:17 am Saturday, October 5, 2019

NATCHEZ — Last week, a social media user posted a complaint that Natchez Police took far too long to respond to a recent emergency situation at a local business.

“The dispatcher took 30 minutes to inform the officer about this!” the social media post stated.

The complaint stemmed from a 911 call in which a woman reported that an immigrant was trying to abduct her and another woman.

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Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong said the complaint turned out to be untrue —  a miscommunication between the people involved due to a language barrier.

Armstrong, however, said that regardless of the severity of the situation the amount of time that elapsed between the 911 call and the moments officers arrived on the scene was unacceptable. Armstrong, however, said the long response time was a result of delays in the dispatch office, not with his officers.

Armstrong also said he has had other recent complaints about response times taking too long, even though his officers response times typically average 8 minutes.

Armstrong said he did some research.

“Apparently the call wasn’t initially dispatched,” Armstrong said, adding he believes delays between dispatchers receiving calls and contacting police officers has happened on several occasions and that he has even addressed the Adams County Board of Supervisors about the problem.

Armstrong said he also had a meeting with Adams County Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Bradford in the past on the topic and that Bradford explained the dispatch system to him.

How the system works

“You’ve got a dispatcher looking at a monitor for the police department,” Armstrong said of the combined E911 dispatch system. “You’ve got another dispatcher looking at the monitor for the fire service and then you’ve got one looking at the monitor for the sheriff’s department.

“Let’s say you are answering a police call, which is where we get the most calls, and you are already tied up on something and another call comes in for the police service. If it is answered by the person that is taking the calls for the sheriff’s office or the fire department, they can’t do anything … It is my understanding that they will wait until you get done.”

Bradford confirmed that is the way the combined E911 dispatch center operates. However, Bradford said, the delayed call time on the incident in question was the fault of one dispatcher.

“It was not the system,” Bradford said. “It was a user error. The people we had on shift that day. It was just a common mistake as far as the arrangement in the dispatch center. … It was just an individual error on that person’s behalf.”

Why the system works that way

Bradford said the E911 dispatch system is set up with three separate dispatch terminals — one for the city, one for the county and one for the fire departments — because the Adams County Sheriff’s Office is currently using an older radio system.

Natchez Police Department switched to the new radio system earlier this year that is part of the Mississippi Wireless Information system, Miss Win for short, which allows users to share frequencies and communications with multiple agencies throughout the state.

Because the different agencies are currently on different radio system dispatchers cannot hear all of the agencies’ communications from their individual desks.

When a call comes in, for instance to the city dispatcher’s desk, if the phone is busy, it will roll over and a dispatcher at another desk can answer the phone.

However, that dispatcher will not be able to access the computer information for the other desk without having to walk over to the other computer terminal, which may be occupied by the dispatcher for that unit, Bradford said.

“Right now, because the city is on the Miss Win system and the sheriff’s office is getting on the Miss Win system, you have two radio systems in dispatch,” Bradford said. “The Miss Win system allows each position to talk to any agency in the county but when the sheriff’s office goes to the Miss Win with everybody else that won’t be a problem with that because you can switch and you can hear all the channels and radio traffic at once in one position.”

Possible solution in coming soon

Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten said the sheriff’s office hopes to be online with its new Miss Win radio system by the end of the week.

“When the Sheriff’s Office goes online with the Miss Win radios, it will eliminate some of the problems dispatchers have with calls coming in,” Patten said, adding the E911 system should have minimal delays to ensure safety of residents and law enforcement officers. “We have just got to work through the kinks of the system.”

Patten said the county is behind on getting the Miss Win radios because of the process of funding and obtaining the system.

“We had to get Board of Supervisors approval,” Patten said. “Once the Board of Supervisors approved them, due to cost, we had to also get Wireless Communication Commission approval as well which took us through two more phases. The WCC only meets once a month on the first Thursday of each month. After that, the radios had to be manufactured and shipped to a vendor to be programmed and installed.”