Tuesday, July 5, 2011
On any given day, the Sedgwick County Emergency Communications Center receives about 1,200 911 calls. On Monday, however, that number reached more than 3,500. A good portion of those calls were non-emergency fireworks complaints and may have led to a serious response delay to real emergencies.
"The 4th of July is about as busy as it gets for us," explains 911 director Randy Bargdill. "It easily rivals New Year's Eve."
"Sedgwick County 911, what is your emergency?" asks one dispatcher taking a call on Monday.
"Well, I don't really have an emergency," the caller says, "but I'm just tired of all the fireworks going off on my street and I want to go to bed."
Hundreds of other calls were similar. In fact, at 9:45 PM Monday, 26 year-old Adan Lopez wrecked his motorcycle at 37th and Ridge Rd. Two people witnessed the crash and tried for more than five minutes to call 911. Both got continuous busy signals and finally gave up trying to call.
The first witness sped off to the Maize Police station to flag down an officer. The second witness called his father, who happened to be an off-duty police officer. Both were able to use their police radios to contact dispatchers.
"This was one of the busiest 4th of July's that we've experienced from the historical data that I can tell," Bargdill said.
It happens every year. Residents calling 911 to report illegal fireworks in their neighborhood. But the problem it creates within the emergency dispatch center can spiral downhill very quickly. Sedgwick County has 20 dedicated telephone lines in the dispatch center. Once they fill up, callers will get a busy signal or an automated message that tells them to hold for the next available call taker.
"911 is the only number that we have for citizens to get a hold of someone in the emergency communications center," Bargdill said. "We have a lot of other duties that we perform that may not be considered emergency duties, but yet we perform those duties and they need to call 911 to reach our dispatchers and call takers."
Add to that, there were three serious house fires working at the same time on Monday. Fire department resources also become stretched very thin.
"Three at a time is pretty taxing," said Captain Stuart Bevis. "That's when we start looking at what we need to do next, but we prepare for this and we have... a chief looking at where we need personnel and do we need to do a callback."
A callback would mean calling in additional firefighters who are off-duty.
Sedgwick County's dispatch center had already called in extra staff, but Bargdill says once those 20 lines fill up, it doesn't matter how many staffers you have, people will still have trouble dialing 911.
"Unfortunately, we didn't have enough phone lines," Bargdill said. "We had the staffing available, but we just reached the capacity of our system."