Fire chief criticizes lag in 911 response
Says time wasted as system routes calls to Concord and dispatchers ask a slate of questions before sending out help
Portsmouth Fire Chief Christopher LeClaireHerald file photo
PORTSMOUTH — Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire said he's instructed his family in the event of an emergency to call the local fire station, not 911.
That's because bypassing 911 means the call goes directly to local responders, instead of the state emergency dispatch center in Concord, he said.
"The statewide 911 system is definitely the way to go," said LeClaire, but it's one that needs to be improved.
The fire chief is critical of the state's emergency protocol, which has dispatchers asking 911 callers multiple questions for details about a sick or injured person's medical condition before notifying local ambulance crews. If, for example, someone is choking, the protocol has the state dispatcher then giving detailed instructions for administering the Heimlich maneuver, he said.
As a result, increased ambulance response time is "a common complaint that we hear," LeClaire said.
"I think there needs to be a simultaneous way to immediately dump the call while gathering information," he said.
David Rivers, acting chief of operations for New Hampshire's Bureau of Emergency Communications, said the simultaneous system already exists, but few first responders are using it. Rivers said, when state dispatchers enter information about 911 calls, it's available to municipalities electronically and in near real time.
Portsmouth communications supervisor Gil Emery said the state's technology is incompatible with the local network. It was offered to Portsmouth years ago, he said, but it would require a separate computer that would be "another input" for a dispatcher to monitor. And, he said, the dispatcher would still have to type the information into Portsmouth's system.
"It might help if all we were doing is dispatching fire," Emery said. "But we also answer calls for police and public works after hours, and there are only two sets of ears and two hands. It didn't fit into our workflow."
Resident Mark Brighton said he phoned 911 last week when a house guest had a cardiac emergency. He said an ambulance was slow to arrive at his home because a state dispatcher spent time asking his wife questions. Local records show a Portsmouth ambulance crew was at Brighton's home four minutes after receiving a radio call from the state, LeClaire said.
But, Brighton alleged, a delay prior to that was caused by a state dispatcher, who "refused to send an ambulance" before his wife answered multiple questions.
"A person can die in that period," he said.
Rivers said information about Brighton's emergency call was logged electronically seven seconds after the 911 call was made as the dispatcher began entering data into a medical interrogation software program.
"Many departments are alerting on that call," he said. "We're sending this information whether they receive it or not."
After the state dispatcher posed medical questions to Brighton's wife for 2 minutes and 19 seconds, Portsmouth responders were notified by radio of the emergency. Then the questions continued.
Rivers arranged for the 911 call to be played for the Herald.
The recording captures the family requesting an ambulance, giving directions and reporting a person was having a heart attack. They were asked the victim's age, they answered, and then they responded in the affirmative to a question about whether the patient was alert.
"An ambulance has been notified," the dispatcher said at that point, adding she needed to ask more questions. She asked if the patient had a cardiac history, if he was having difficulty breathing, if he was clammy, or on any drugs or medication. The dispatcher then instructed the 911 caller to remain calm and "stay on the line so I can help you."
It was then she radioed the Portsmouth dispatch center, which then notified the Fire Department of the emergency.
"Why does a telecommunicator ask those questions?" said David Lang, president of the state Fire Fighters Association. "That takes too much time."
The dispatcher then gave the Brightons instructions to administer four aspirin to the patient, adding, "There we go, you're doing a great job. Alright, assure him that help is on the way."
Brighton's wife then criticized the "speed, or lack thereof, of an ambulance," before the dispatcher again assured her help was on the way. Then the Brightons reported an ambulance had arrived.
Bruce Cheney, director of New Hampshire's Bureau of Emergency Communications, said seconds seem like minutes during medical emergencies and that the state uses an internationally recognized protocol. That protocol, he said, means if someone is unconscious, not breathing or "pumping" blood, the call is transferred immediately to local responders without further questions being asked.
Rivers said he's been an emergency medical technician for 19 years and believes that, if Brighton and his wife were "a little more cooperative," seconds could have been shaved off the response time. Also, two minutes and 19 seconds could've been shaved if Portsmouth responded when the state dispatcher first entered the call electronically, he said.
Rivers also said he takes exception to LeClaire's advice about not calling 911.
"That's not a safe thing to be telling anybody," he said, noting that firefighters could be at a fire, and if a 911 call is made from a cell phone, responders don't automatically know where the call originated.
Deputy Fire Chief Steve Achilles said the Fire Department is getting computers that will allow them to see emergency calls when they're received from the state at the Police Department dispatch center. Then, he said, firefighters can respond in the 10 to 30 seconds it takes local dispatchers to receive and dispatch the calls.