So this is the 9-1-1 “system” that the town mayors defend so vigorously every time it’s suggested that there’s a better way to handle emergency service calls in our community.

Anytime the Memphis and Shelby County Metro Charter Commission has suggested that a centralized system would be preferable and could be accomplished with a new government, Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy seems to get emotional.  Today, perhaps, she’ll get emotional about the botched hand-off from the 9-1-1 call made by Lorenzen Wright that was routed to her city.

Mr. Wright now joins former Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler as symbols for the fragmented system that we have today.  On November 11, 2004, Mayor Chandler suffered a heart attack at his home and lost precious minutes while 9-1-1 operators debated where he lived and which city should respond to the call.

Desperate Call

This week, we learned that Germantown received a 9-1-1 call from Mr. Wright’s phone nine days before his body was found and only after Germantown officials decided that it might be something they should mention to someone else.

It’s as if Mr. Wright found himself at the worst moment of his life locked in the 9-1-1 Bermuda Triangle.  He was reported missing to the Collierville police.  Then he made a desperate call from a secluded location inside Memphis, and the call went to the Germantown 9-1-1 center.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  But it requires all of the jurisdictions in Shelby County to quit fighting for turf and fight instead for a high-performing, life-saving system. The way that town officials react viscerally whenever the subject of a more centralized, more coordinated approach is suggested, it seems almost like it’s not a matter of safety, but a matter of money in town budgets.

Better System

When former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith was in Memphis for his presentation to Leadership Memphis earlier this year, we were talking with him about our local government since he was here to talk about innovation in government as head of the Harvard University program that explores creative ways to deliver public services.

Of course, we knew that he was also former mayor of a consolidated government, so we were asking about ways to save money, increase money and how the structure of government can drive innovation.  The subject turned to 9-1-1 systems, a topic of special expertise for Mr. Goldsmith, now deputy mayor of New York City.

We described the “system” we have here and he had a look that said, “You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”  After assuring him that we were telling him the facts about our octopus-like approach, he simply shook his head and said the system could put lives at risk and that improving emergency services was reason enough to consider consolidation.

A Real System

Later, Mr. Goldsmith was asked by Rebuild Government to write commentaries, including one that dealt with safety and 9-1-1.  Benefits cited by him (with more detail found on Rebuild Government column) were unified vision, a single philosophy and mission, better manpower allocation by eliminating artificial boundaries and better use of resources.

Here is an excerpt from his column, and his comments are pertinent in light of this week’s 9-1-1 controversy and despite anyone’s opinion about consolidation:

No issue is more fundamental to a vibrant community than its safety…a good start would be to consolidate the many and highly fragmented 9-1-1 call centers into a single, larger, more professional and modernized approach that combines the five public safety answering points into one.  An integrated 9-1-1 system can provide better smoothing of peaks and valleys of demand, more opportunities for professional advancement and enhanced data collection, borderless service and management that will help to better serve the community.

Call to Arms

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter tweeted today that the Wright incident points out the need for a better system, and in response to an email from us, he replied:

“We approved the funds to build a 9-1-1 center in this year’s budget. Most will come from 9-1-1 fund and rest from City and County. However, only City of Memphis and Shelby County will be housed there. None of the suburbs have agreed to participate, which of course means continued fragmentation and possible delay in emergency services.

“I don’t know all the details of the Lorenzen Wright 9-1-1, but it seems to point to protocol and communication deficiencies. Truly merged 9-1-1 would have all resources under one roof, standardized protocols and the same training for personnel and presumably better communication between law enforcement and 911 dispatch.  It might not have made a difference especially since we can’t locate calls from cell phones, but at a minimum it illustrates a dysfunctional system in many ways. “

Can We Make This the Last?

It’s just makes you wonder how many more times do town officials have to explain to families like the Chandlers and the Wrights why they tolerate a system that fails at its basic mission – to allow for rapid emergency responses.

It doesn’t have to be this hard.
Note: In answer to a follow-up question about triangulating cell phones, Commissioner Carpenter said:  I did some research and the issue is that cell phones can be tracked to the nearest tower, but not to an exact location, which is the reason the 9-1-1 board advertises to know the address if you are calling from a call phone.  Because towers can cover a broad geographic area, it can still be difficult to find someone’s location in an emergency.  The technology exists to pinpoint an exact location.  It’s called Next Generation 911.  As far as I know, no community has it.  The infrastructure is very expensive and it will likely be a part of future Homeland Security interoperability efforts.  In other words, funded by the Feds through the states.