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City brings in new operators to deal with disturbing call response trend

NEW ORLEANS - The time it takes for a 911 operator to handle your emergency call in New Orleans is going in the wrong direction. The problem appears to be manpower, and the city is now taking steps to address it.

On any given day, more than 30 police, fire and EMS operators respond to nearly 1,400 emergency calls, and some days are better than others.

But lately, there's a problem. The average response time has slipped. The goal is to answer every 911 call within 20 seconds, but that seems to be getting harder and harder to achieve. In January and February of this year, when the city was handling Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, nearly 98 percent of 911 calls were picked up within 20 seconds, much better than the national average.

"We took personnel and gave them time off before and after, and we did it without any extra dollars," said Terry Ebbert, chairman of the city's 911 board.

But in the eight months since then, the response times have fallen nearly eight percentage points. Now, just 90 percent of calls are being picked up within 20 seconds.

"This trend line looks terrible to me," said board member Dr. Brobson Lutz. "I don't think we're funding enough."

Part of the problem is in the number of 911 operators. At one time, the 911 center had 65 operators; now there are 44.

"When you see something like that, it's worrisome," said board member Dr. Jim Aiken.

The other part of the problem is non-emergency calls, such as officers working details. The 911 center now gets up to 600 calls a day from officers doing private, outside work.

"At first, we started doing this on an emergency basis, but this has gone on far too long," Lutz said.

But board member Jerry Sneed said it's all part of community policing - a way to let dispatchers know where every officer is at any given time in case of an emergency.

Help is on the way in the form of a nearly 33 percent increase in troop strength.

"We're gonna go to 48 call takers," said Ebbert. " And the past year we were at 34."

The extra operators will no doubt help, but questions remain as to whether their time is being utilized as efficiently as it should be. Board members are considering more studies - and a public relations campaign - to remind people to call (504) 821-2222 for all non-emergency calls.

"That's an education process that we continue to engage in with the public," Ebbert said.

Administrators are also exploring easier ways to track officers working details and hiring entry- level clerks to handle non-emergency calls.

The 911 Commission is also taking steps to place a billboard near it's operation center off the Pontchartrain Expressway. That billboard could generate $35,000 a year in advertising revenue for the commission and the city.

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