APD Series 5

911 is a service provided in Georgia that most people agree is a welcome provision of protection by the police. In the past, Atlantans could call a separate non-emergency number for issues not needing immediate assistance. That’s kind of the role 311 plays in Atlanta now, albeit I feel like the fact that it’s available only 7-7, M-F, makes 911 a far more used default than its current counterpart. The third session of the Atlanta Citizens’ Police Academy taught the class about how the city receives and dispatches these calls. Since that class and this publication, here’s some coverage for the metro area (more than just Atlanta) from the AJC. Spoiler alert: these folks who are doing the Lord’s work are paid far too little and are dealing with a constant level of high stress, which may be contributing to their resignation. I came to write this series though not because I want to belittle my city nor its service providers, but to talk from my own experience and knowledge about how some of these challenges are for the state to solve, nonprofits to model best practices, and how racism and implicit gender bias affects it all.  I told you I’d talk about 911, so here we go. 

Some background: I have about just enough knowledge about the 911 system in Georgia to be dangerous from a friend who used to run it for the state. He was, in my personal opinion, far too underfunded and underpaid for the service he and his agency provided us. So he has moved onto the private sector and I’m sure enjoying it! He made me aware of two things: his funding source and of the grid system 911 uses to determine the approximate location of individuals calling in vs. the provision of an actual address. This grid system is helpful for the reality of life like when one has an emergency while one is perhaps hiking, taking a stroll on the Beltline, or driving in a backroad in our state (Jot ‘Em Down Rd. comes to mind or any of its similar gravel counterparts). Atlanta may not have backroads, but we have an absolute maze of alleyways in Midtown that provides access to backyard parking in condos that once were individual homes. My own neighborhood even has landlocked units. This isn’t as uncommon as one might think.

Georgia also has this tendency (not exclusive to Atlanta’s version of Peachtree, but here’s a map of them, thanks @mappingatl) of naming roads so similarly that it makes emergency calls difficult to respond depending upon where one falls on county lines. Ask me about the scar on my foot sometime that I gained from a fire I was involved in off Lake Oconee. Both Greene and Putnam County response teams were involved. 

This event is also a contributing factor in my feelings regarding LEOs and unconscious/conscious bias. Maybe I’ll discuss that at a later date.

911 in Georgia is also funded by an additional fee on property taxes. Here’s the AJC coverage of it (and a cameo quotation by yours truly back in 2019). This is a negotiated fee that benefits Arthur Ferdinand, personally. As a personal aside, I enjoy writing in “dead cat” every year on my digital ballot instead of voting for him.

Atlanta’s 911 service is a multi-member team of operators and dispatchers. E911 Communications is a consolidated police and fire dispatch center that receives up to 1M calls annually, 3K daily. They have 51+ workstations for call taking, dispatching and overflow. This is a 24 hour service that includes three eight hour shifts. The operators are the folks who take the calls and then identify in shorthand locations and needs of the calls. The operators have this amazing list of all exits and interchanges along interstates in the city. I wish they would share this with DDS and the general public so we could all print it out and keep it in our cars when calling in an accident. 

I listened in on the calls and the dispatches. The striking element of the calls I heard were two things I see in my own neighborhood and surrounding areas: fires and senior citizens in some health distress. The fires in my neighborhood are often the result of slums investor owned homes not being kept up to code with old wiring that catches fire. This is an absolutely fixable challenge with greater emphasis on code enforcement officers and HUD doing more thorough checks in their affordable housing contracts. The senior citizen challenge is more nuanced and complex. This challenge is one of personal dignity. As folks age, we have this strong will to be independent and hide declining health and needs from loved ones who may or may not regularly check on their people. I am 40, and find myself often sandwiched between the children and the aging adults in my community- both vulnerable, and both hiding their vulnerabilities to others in a defiant show of strength. 

So, in lieu of honesty with those we love, seniors call 911. 

Difficulty in breathing was the most prevalent this was back in February, as numbers of the Omnicron variant were rising. 

Readers considering loved ones in their own lives might value knowing about Smart 911. It’s basically an online registry that allows one to enter their personal information that will be shared with 911 and can better inform officers in an emergency. While this too gives me Big Brother vibes, as a diabetic who lives with an ashmatic person who is deathly allergic to dairy, I feel like any info I can give emergency personnel in terms of saving my life, I’m willing to sacrifice my right to privacy for the greater good. My husband, not so much, sadly.

Smart 911 registration is linked to an email, not a specific location, so if you have loved ones  around you that would be grateful for you setting this up for them: DO IT.

My husband and I have used eCanvasser maps to better identify neighbors and dispense community resources in previous elections. A longer term mapping project for myself has been to identify senior citizens in our neighborhood along with a community resource map that would enable citizens to know where their nearest resources are located. Don’t be impressed- Google Maps are stupid easy to use to create tools like this. And I’m also aware that the city of Atlanta spends almost $1M on a mapping software called GIS that uses layer data to map various things in the city. Creating these maps is not a challenge. Keeping them up to date and dissemination might be, but partnering with orgs like AARP would be an easy win IMHO. Also, Atlanta has this entire Neighborhood Planning Unit system, created by our first Black Mayor, Maynard Jackson, that’s supposed to advise the city on what citizens need. I wrote about it last week. There’s really no reason why we can’t do a better job of resource deployment. We have the tools. We just need the staff to focus on it. 

Go figure that the city is more interested in neutering this system more than empowering it, sadly.

If you haven’t already discerned, our failing ability to care for the most vulnerable in society is the major reason why 911 is engaged. Bandaid efforts of legislators to serve the indigent and aged with our poor excuse for a healthcare system means our first responders are having to care for our family members and neighbors because we don’t. Systematically, this makes sense- 911 should (in theory) have more resources than individuals. Yet I don’t see that. I was also surprised to see that even recognition for our first responders was lagging on the city level. The 911 center was advocating for a resolution to be passed on Council to recognize them as first responders, which might lead to more resources in the city flowing their way. I cannot comprehend why resolutions like this puppy dogs and babies stuff hasn’t blown through city council. 

Some other improvements needed for 911 are on the state level- and Altanta probably wishes they could influence this more. The funding source of 911 across the state is based on a fee slapped on the top of property taxes. The troublesome part about this fee is that some county officials, like the snake in the grass Tax Assessor for Fulton County, Arthur Ferdinand, negotiates this fee- as in, his office gets a bigger piece of that fee pie rather than 911. How this is legal is beyond my comprehension!?!? How the man sleeps at night is also beyond my knowledge. So instead of this money trickling down to the saints people who answer the desperate calls of our friends and family in our hour of need, our state legislators allow Ferdinand (maybe others too) to skim off the top. 

As a friendly reminder- this was all established under a “conservative” legislature. It’s currently unclear whether these folks know what that word actually means.

So to be clear- the challenge of funding 911 in Atlanta cannot exclusively be resolved by City Council nor Mayor Dickens. The negotiating of fees is a problem that rests at state legislators’ feet and SHOULD be a bipartisan supported policy change. It’s wrong and a relatively easy policy change that can be fixed. I’d almost put it in the puppy dogs and babies category of legislation that should have overwhelming support. So while our suburban and rural legislators get us all stirred up about gender and to say or don’t say “gay” in school, let’s keep in mind the real problem solving they’re conveniently evading and putting off on Atlanta.

In contrast, there are some challenges that are necessary to come from within. Like many entities now who are finally beginning to see retirements of Boomers, 911 is trying to do more professional development and career progression programs to improve opportunities for promotion. As an aside- I heard this fairly often in the APD, across the Department- people did the work to be promoted but weren’t. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I don’t know what it is and I didn’t take the time to investigate further. I hope someone shall. 

This phenomenon isn’t uncommon though. I see it in churches, in nonprofits, civic organizations, and business. Many Boomers never wanted to teach anyone what they were doing while they did it, and now that they’re retiring, organizations across America are having to grapple with all the Gen Xers who’ve been patiently waiting their turns and the Millenials (myself) and Zoomers who don’t have an understanding of why the system is so broken nor fixed sooner. 

911 also named there was a focus on increased community engagement to raise public awareness, enhance public support and satisfaction and provide two way flow of information. I’m curious about this two way flow of information and if anyone knows more about specifics, I hope they’ll share with me. To my knowledge, when one is in an emergency situation, the more information provided at the time can provide the maximum likelihood of success. I’d personally love to be able to have more information coming TO ME to prevent emergency services needing to be called as well.  I tend to think the public is well aware of the service, perhaps too much so that we have enough calls going into it that citizens are put on hold and have to wait (I kid you not) 3 hours for a response (one of my neighbors-non emergency). 

There was some discussion of a Viper Upgrade that will assist with quickly identifying and separating emergency calls, non emergency calls, abandoned calls, and misrouted calls. This would probably have helped my neighbor. I didn’t hear any more about this, but I can say from personal recent experience, I have no longer heard as much hold music when I called, so there’s that!

ASP to PSAP was a big talking point- it’s an automated secure alarm protocol to public safety answering point in some agencies has reduced up to 50,000, calls into the communication center. This program allows alarm companies to send alarm calls directly to the E911 Center without having to call and verbally speak to the E911 Center. The presenter assured us this didn’t mean that alarm company’s calls were answered faster than individual calls. As an aside, I remember that a previous real estate office in Midtown used to have various realtors setting off the alarms at all kinds of odd hours- 2 and 3am. And they in turn received bills for $500 for each false call. This is why- those calls cost time and resources from the city and I don’t blame the city one bit for trying to recover some of those costs. 

By the numbers there are:

Supervisor Consoles

18 call taking consoles

10 police dispatch consoles

3 police tactical consoles

4 fire consoles

2 tactical consoles that are dispatched to Grady or Dekalb

2021 staffing and hiring includes: 

154 current employees

25 vacancies

8 in hiring

35 hired

15 resigned last year

That last statistic was one I found important. Some years ago, while volunteering for the Atlanta Junior League, Inc., I was given a tour of the United Way of Greater Atlanta. United Way has a 211 number for connecting those in need with services provided by charities around the metro area. One becomes registered, and the United Way tries to track individuals to render services to wrap folks in the care they need. The operators work just like I watched these dispatchers work- responding and connecting to a larger network. It’s an outstanding service, but what I remember most from the tour was the extra room with a small aquarium in it that the folks who received the calls could retreat to when they needed to step away. It was an intentional space because the United Way recognized the work was emotionally and mentally draining and at times, it becomes too much.

We know this to be true about teaching, medical personnel, generally anyone who regularly deals with the general public. I tried specifically to ask in each session of my class what the APD provides as far as resources for members of their department. I asked about the 911 operators as well.

I’m not sure if it was because mental health continues to have a stigma that should be relegated to the stone age or if the APD doesn’t actually provide these resources to their department members. Either way, I never heard about any mental health services officers or operators used. There was some sort of acronym they referred to, which seemed to be akin to a day off. 

I mention this to emphasize that maybe….I dunno… some greater mental health support resources should be provided. Maybe we’ll see less resignations. Maybe not, but I’d at least try it.  *shrug* Just a thought. Spitballing here.

I’m known for my questions, and I won’t lie to you, dear reader. I always ask as many as they’ll allow. 

I asked about how to find someone on the Beltline. They referenced mile markers, but also identified they are getting a system called RapidSOS that will track a phone that’s called in, even if the person moves. As I mentioned earlier, the state 911 system uses a grid system for this reason, and I asked if this was helpful. Some years back I tried to connect the friend who was head of Georgia 911 to the Atlanta Beltline just so there could be some initial conversations that could try to assist folks in these corridors, but to my knowledge nothing ever came of it. 

I asked about dispatching for Atlanta, Dekalb, and Cobb. Atlanta 911 doesn’t dispatch for Cobb County, but Moreland is a gray area between Dekalb County and Atlanta. Funny enough, the week before, I’d met up with a friend at Manny’s and spoke with a guy who lived in this Moreland corridor. He shared with me that one night his normally super sweet and docile doberman started barking (and wouldn’t stop) at his boat, covered and stored in his backyard. When he called 911 to ask an officer to come check it out with him, (he’s a big guy, but doesn’t have a bulletproof vest) officers from both Dekalb and APD both showed up. It turned out to be nothing, thankfully. That said, he felt horribly about both departments answering a false alarm and said that he’d be happy to call a specific number so it didn’t engage both if the officers would give him instructions. The responding officers didn’t seem to mind and told him that it was just the reality of living in the area in which he resides. 

I found this sort of fascinating though, as the 911 center has the software to identify when a caller is stranded off of an exit off 400. I saw it with my own eyes. They didn’t have a camera on the individual, but they could geo locate the person so that officers could respond. I’m not sure why this likewise couldn’t be employed for the guy in Grant Park. My best guess is Dekalb and Atlanta would prefer to double up on deployment rather than not have anyone show up. 

But this makes me wonder about my own neighborhood, right? Why do we get such long response times? It’s not proximity to police headquarters (8 mins by car and 18 mins by transit) nor is it proximity to the Zone Precinct (7 mins via car and 31 via transit). So what is it? 

Let me share a story from last week that I shared on Facebook. 

“In today’s adventures in racism:

…while outside watering our #guerillagarden, I was approached by a gentleman who experienced a hit and run on the 1300 block of MLK Jr. Dr. (Our block) whose car was parked on Cerro St. Eric was watering, I was checking on the wasp nest in our #littlefreelibrary

Gentleman asked me to call the City of Atlanta Police Department bc 30 minutes had passed since his reporting of the accident to 911. He had an infant, a toddler, his partner, and his brother with him.

I called, gave my address, and the operator said an officer was on the way (I should say this was after being on hold long enough to realize 911 needs new music) . After my previous no-response from the APD I asked her:

“At what point should I call back if the responding officer doesn’t arrive?”

“Whenever you feel it’s necessary.”

“Thank you! Have a good night”

I’m proud to say we saw blue lights in a matter of minutes.

I’m not proud to say we all know the reason why the man asked me, not Eric, to place the second call.”

It’s human nature to want to pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve solved something. If you’re in politics you make it your JOB to tout any and every little thing you do that’s even an ounce of improvement from whatever existed before. Respectfully though, this system and the hindrances it has are solvable challenges that require work from the state, county (stop the Arthur Ferdinand grift) and the city. Our city first responders at 911 need that designation from the city council. They also need resources to deal with the emotional and mental load they walk into every day. Atlantans deserve systems that serve them, not duplicating services, requiring multiple calls, hold muzak, nor should they be furthering the Ferdinand grift. Atlanta 911 and 311 could and should integrate their non-emergency needs with the United Way’s 211 system and all have the very real opportunity to work on best practices they know from experience to serve our most vulnerable population. I recognize this will require removing the silos that have been built up over the KLB years, but it is absolutely possible and would benefit us all. The ability to call and have someone who cares to respond on the other side of 911 is a tangible benefit that can be achieved if we have lawmakers and city partners willing to work together to meet our most vulnerable needs. More importantly to me, if our lawmakers aren’t willing to do this, then I’d like to have someone tell me why. 

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