They're often the first voice of help in an emergency. Yet 911 dispatchers in Minneapolis fear no one is listening to their own pleas for help.
A 2017 memo on behalf of the employee union criticized a new computer system which employees say has made their job more difficult and delayed responses. These problems persisted as recently as December 2018, according to Carrie Sampson, who recently quit the department after 20 years.
"It was emotionally draining," says Sampson, who cited the constant need for her to work extra hours to fill in shortages.
The Minneapolis Emergency Call Center [MECC] is Minnesota’s busiest operation for emergency calls. It handles roughly one million calls for help a year and employs about 60 people. As of late last year, there were around 10 unfilled job openings, according to Christine McPherson, interim director of emergency communications for Minneapolis.
Handling a wide range of calls -- from car crashes, to fires, to domestic assault -- and quickly sending the appropriate help is a juggling act, even for veterans like Sampson. And some have grown frustrated with recent managerial decisions and a staffing shortage at MECC. Most of their ire is reserved for a system called "ProQA," a new software program that was supposed to help dispatchers handle calls.
Minneapolis spent around half a million dollars for ProQA, signing a two-year contract with a company callled Priority Dispatch in 2016. Its implementation did not go smoothly.
A memo from union employees to former director Heather Hunt authored shortly after the system was installed called ProQA a "detriment to the public, the police and the employees of the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center." And according to several former employees, those problems persist.
One common criticism is a script dispatchers must follow, which prompts dispatchers to ask a series of questions. Ex-employees say those queries can frustrate the caller, and contribute to delays in relaying information to those responding to the scene.
Kathyrn Barna, another former Minneapolis dispatcher, said before the new software was launched, she could process a routine car accident in under a minute. With the new program, the same call was taking two to three minutes.
"The surprise came when low-priority calls tripled in length and delayed us getting to high-priority calls," Sampson said. "We were spending more time on the wrong priority calls, which makes no sense."
Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll has called for the system to be discontinued, saying police officers have arrived at incidents where weapons are involved without a description of either the person or the weapon.
“The problem is the city bought a poor product,” Kroll said. “I think the [MECC] regrets it, and they are just stuck with the price tag with it, and we are just not happy with it.”
Four former employees said the software factored into their decision to quit.
Dave Warner, representative of ProQA, came to Minneapolis last month to meet with police and MECC employees to dispute what he says are misconceptions. Warner says some of the problems raised in the meeting are common.
“If law enforcement doesn’t understand it they can become suspicious of it," Warner says.
McPherson chalked difficulties up to "growing pains," and said things are improving as employees learn the system. After 20 years on the job, McPherson, who was the assistant director when the new software was installed, said she'd seen people becoming “complacent” with how they took calls. It was a time for a change in "philosophy," she said.
By using a script, dispatchers are given a protocol to use on every single call. The purpose, McPherson said, is "to make it easier for our dispatchers to do a really good job on every call ... We want to give our dispatchers the tools to make it almost impossible to fail."
Among the new methods brought on by the script is a change in the phrasing of questions asked. Previously dispatchers might ask "Did he have a gun?", they would now ask a more open-ended question, like: "Were there any weapons involved?"
McPherson says the script also makes it so any call-taker can handle any call, regardless of past experience. She argues the value in both the software and the rigid script is in eliminating liability for the department. No agency has lost a lawsuit while using the ProQA protocol, notes Priority Dispatch's Dave Warner.
“Is that a negative thing?” Warner asked, regarding increased call times. “If we are getting more information, wouldn’t we be expecting call times to increase?”
MECC has lost around 15 percent of its staff since implementing ProQA, though McPherson says not all of the turnover resignations can be blamed on ProQA; she also notes the department saw high rates of turnover in 2014, when MECC made changes to employee training. Historically, McPherson said, turnover occurs any time the dispatch department goes through a big change.
One former employee described being overwhelmed by picking up extra hours, hours required due to staffing shortages because other staffers were quitting. “It was spoken about to me as if it was a choice ... I didn’t know until I finished training I would have to work substantial amounts of overtime,” said the former worker, who asked not to be named because they feared it could negatively impact them at their new job.
McPherson says she is concerned with the mental health of her employees and is working on "long overdue initiatives" to increase options for employees, including a "peer support" team. She's also looking forward to getting the department back to full staff.
McPherson understands employees may be upset. "Change is hard and understanding this process of change when you may not have thought any change was necessary can be hard for some people."
She's asking for dispatchers to be patient. Organizational changes can often be three-to-five year projects, McPherson says, and this one is only in its second year.