Bonney Lake council concerned about emergency response times

How long it takes South Sound 911 to dispatch Bonney Lake police officers to emergency calls was the focus of last week’s Bonney Lake City Council workshop.

In November 2016, the city commissioned the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) to study the Bonney Lake Police Department’s staffing and workload levels, community demographics and crime levels, as well as evaluate the department’s effectiveness, analyze its equipment and resources and examine response times for all calls.

The report, which was finished May 2017, was presented to the City Council during the June 27 workshop.

In general, the department was praised by the organization for the department’s dedication to its community, its willingness to perform quarterly employee evaluations and officer’s access to technology and equipment.

Many areas where the department could use improvement were policy glitches and website upgrades, said Marilyn Diaz, a retired Sierra Madre, California police chief now with CPSM.

But there was a looming issue that overshadowed the organization’s otherwise positive presentation — how long it takes South Sound 911 to dispatch Bonney Lake police officers to a high-priority emergency.

Between November 2015 to October 2016, the Bonney Lake Police Department received 48 Priority 1 calls.

“Priority 1 calls are life-threatening calls, or crimes-in-progress,” Diaz said during her presentation. “In Bonney Lake, there’s an exceptionally slow response, not from the police department, but from South Sound (911), the dispatch center.”

According to CPSM, dispatch took an average of more than three minutes to dispatch Bonney Lake officers on a Priority 1 call between November 2015 and October 2016.

“3.2 minutes on the average Priority 1 call is wholly unacceptable,” Diaz said. “That is probably one of the highest dispatch delay times… ever. They shouldn’t be more than 30 seconds.”

In response to these study results, the City Council invited South Sound 911 to give a presentation on if and why dispatch times may be delayed at the last council workshop on Sept. 5.

South Sound 911’s Law Enforcement Deputy Director Mark Mears said they weren’t quite able to understand CPSM’s methodology for analyzing how well the call agency handled Priority 1 calls.

“We were not sure of all the data that CPSM’s received what they actually utilized, how big was the sampling they used and how was it applied,” Mears said in a later interview. “Another issue it appears they may have used data from the two different CAD (computer-assisted dispatch) systems. We transitioned to the New Hexagon CAD system during the period they apparently reviewed. Data processing is different related to both.”

Mears also said that while not all Priority 1 calls can be categorized in under 30 seconds.

He gave the council data that he complied from the seven Bonney Lake Priority 1 calls during May, June and July 2017.

One call, he said, was a self-harm/suicide attempt call from a teacher at Bonney Lake High School, saying a student left the room threatening self-harm. While that call was categorized as a Priority 1 call, there was no information on where the student was located, so dispatch and response time were delayed.

“Some calls within the priority categories take longer to decipher than others,” he said in an interview. “If a caller calls and says, ‘Help, I’ve been shot!’ the nature of the call is immediately apparent. If a caller calls and begins with, ‘I am a little worried about my roommate. He won’t come out of his room,’ and after some Q & A it is determined that the roommate has been depressed about a breakup, locked himself in his room, and the caller believes he might have taken some pills — all that information takes time to gather.”

Other calls elicited much faster response times during those three months: a drowning report took South Sound 35 seconds to dispatch, a stabbing report 70 seconds, and an armed robbery 53 seconds.

Mears added some delay could be attributed to how Bonney Lake police officers are dispatched to emergencies.

Before South Sound 911 was formed in 2011 by a voter-approved levy, Bonney Lake was dispatched by the city of Puyallup. Puyallup dispatch joined South Sound in 2016, bringing Bonney Lake with it.

However, no changes were made to dispatch protocols or staffing when Puyallup and Bonney Lake joined South Sound, meaning that while the cities were part of a new agency, not much changed in the way dispatch operated.

Typically, when someone calls 911, the call is first picked up by a designated call-taker, Mears said, who takes initial information and categorizes the call before sending it off to dispatch, who takes more information from the caller while sending out first responders.

But METRO dispatch teams — which includes Puyallup, Bonney Lake and other eastside Pierce County cities — doesn’t use call-takers. Instead, dispatch handles taking in all the caller’s information, categorizes the emergency and dispatches officers.

“They’re doing multiple jobs all at once, and in the same fashion, they’re answering other 911 calls as well as starting to put stuff into CAD to push out to the officers to go,” Mears said.

South Sound hopes to be changing this policy by December by having the METRO group start using designated call-takers, Mears said.

This will help decrease dispatch time, but getting first responders to an emergency is a team effort.

“For a citizen to have confidence in a response time in the community, it needs to be a collaborative effort between what we do — and we’re certainly willing to participate — with the police and fire department as well,” Mears said.

According to the CPSM report, it took the Bonney Lake Police Department an average of 5.9 minutes to respond to a Priority 1 call between November 2015 and October 2016, meaning the total average response time to Priority 1 calls was 9.1 minutes.

The report states that Bonney Lake’s geography should shoulder part of the blame for a slower police response time, since officers have to deal with close to an 8 square mile area and contend with Lake Tapps and high traffic volume.

“Anecdotal reports from patrol officers indicate that it may take as much as 10 minutes to traverse the city from one end to the other during the most congested traffic hours,” the report reads.

CPSM also wrote that it appeared the department lacked shift overlap between the early morning shift and the day shift during the study time period, which also contributed to increased response times.

“At that time there may be no units deployed in the field for as much as 30 to 45 minutes,” the report reads. “Even where overlaps of shifts occur, it is the department’s practice to have the on-duty shift personnel return to the station for briefing with the on-coming shift.”

To increase response times, CPSM recommended officers write police reports in their vehicles located at strategic points throughout the city, rather than returning to the department.

Additionally, the agency suggested the police department re-examine its prisoner transportation policies, which can take officers two-plus hours to perform.

Mears said South Sound and Bonney Lake Police Chief Dana Powers are working together to further analyze CPSM’s data and are moving forward to make both agencies more efficient.

CPSM Final Report on BLPD by Ray Still on Scribd