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Audit: 911 dispatchers need more training

A city audit released Monday faults the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications for not sufficiently training 911 dispatchers, evaluating the quality of their work, or having the right procedures to meet its needs.

"We found that operators do not receive sufficient ongoing training and professional development, and the bureau lacks a call handling quality control process. In addition, we found the bureau's expectation and application of Standard Operating Procedures may not match BOEC's needs," reads the cover letter signed by City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade.

The audit is titled "Emergency Communications: Training, quality control and procedures warrant improvement." It is a follow up to a 2002 of BOEC that found similar problems. Its recommendation have not yet been fully implemented.

The new audit recommends BOEC take steps to correct the problems and report its progress to the City Council.

"The audit recommends that the BOEC implement sufficient training and professional development of staff, develop a quality control process, and set expectations for the use of procedures and evaluate their application. We ask the bureau provide us with a status report within one year detailing actions taken to implement the audit," reads Griffin-Valade's letter.

The audit said the problems could threaten public safety by compromising emergency responses, but did not include any examples.

Commmission Steve Novick is in charge of BOEC. In a response letter included in the audit, Novick called BOEC "understaffed" He promised to ask the council for additional funds for BOEC and work with its partners to implement the changes.

"[Y]ou simply cannot do what a normal employer would do and close up shop for a couple hours at a time to do training. The phones have to be answered," Novick wrote.

According to the audit, BOEC operates the largest emergency communications center in the state. Its primary mission is answering and dispatching 911 calls to public safety agencies in Multnomah County, including police and fire departments. It also dispatches ambulances. The 911 operators are certified professionals who answer and dispatch a variety of calls based on their training, BOEC's Standard Operating Procedures, and their experience.

The audit found that although 911 operators are trained when hired, they do not receive sufficient ongoing training and professional development. For example, operators are required to read new procedures when they are adopted, but BOEC does not ensure they understand and correctly apply them. Operators told auditors they do not have enough time to review them. One example is new procedures on suicide calls.

The audit also found BOEC lacks a call handling quality control process to identify systemic issues with call handling and procedures. And it found the existing procedures may not meet the BOEC's needs.

BOEC's budget in the last fiscal year included $19 million for operations and 142 positions, including 111 operators and trainees.

BOEC began using a new Computer Assisted Dispatch system in April 2011 that requires extensive retraining and new procedures, which are still being written, the audit says. The audit did not comment on questions raised at the time about the implementation of the new system.

Last year BOEC received 978,088 calls. Sixty-one percent of them were for emergencies. Both total and emergency calls increased over the previous two fiscal years.

An employee satisfaction survey conducted by BOEC in March 2012 showed that questions relating to its learning environment received the lower satisfaction ratings. The audit also notes that morale needs improvement.

Although the audit did not say so, repeated changes in BOEC oversight may have contributed to the lack of progress on the problems identified in 2002. Mayor Charlie Hales assigned BOEC to Novick earlier this year. Both Hales and Novick took office in January. Before that, BOEC was assigned to Commissioner Amanda Fritz and, before that, to Commissioner Randy Leonard.

The full audit can be found at bit.ly/13zRLQp