On Tuesday, the Hamilton County 9-1-1 Emergency Communications District will be celebrating its 15th anniversary of becoming a unified emergency communications district. That may not seem like a momentous event, until you learn about the events that led up to that unification.
Before unification, the 9-1-1 Center was plagued with problems, such as dropped calls, or unanswered calls. Back then, the local 9-1-1 system was comprised of various emergency response agencies, each with their own personnel, procedures and training. They used the same radio system, but could not assist each other in duties. This sometimes caused serious problems, such as individual dispatchers becoming overwhelmed by large-scale emergencies, which sometimes resulted in unanswered or abandoned calls. The level of training also varied considerably, from one agency to another. “Only one agency had a training program,” said Jeff Carney, executive director of the District. “Most telecommunicators had no certificates in their files and little to no formal training.” Carney is also the president of the Tennessee Emergency Numbers Association (TENA).
As the unanswered calls and other problems mounted, multiple studies were commissioned by the Hamilton County 9-1-1 Board of Directors to find a solution. In 2006, 9-1-1 board member Daisy Madison reported that 2,027 of the 19,900 calls to 9-1-1 countywide – or 10% — were abandoned, or not answered at all.
In September 2006, the 9-1-1 board voted to unify the dispatch center, but doing that is not like flipping a switch. More studies and detailed plans had to be worked out to make the transition as smooth as possible, not only for the citizens of Hamilton County, but for the employees as well. “The telecommunicators and their supervisors are the backbone of this center,” said Director Carney. We had to make sure that their pay and benefits were protected, regardless of which agency they worked for previously.”
On January 9, 2009, the transition was made and the unification of all emergency communications was placed under the umbrella of the Hamilton County 9-1-1 Emergency Communications District. Under unification, all 9-1-1 telecommunicators would receive the same training and would be employees of the District. In addition to the improved training, the telecommunicators could help each other, improve efficiency, and reduce dropped calls.
“Our Telecommunicators are certified far above both the state and national minimum training requirements, with an average of seven certifications earned within a year,” said Director Carney. “This dedication to training led to our agency receiving Training Program Certification from the Association of Public Safety Officials (APCO), the first agency in Tennessee to do so.”
The District now answers 9-1-1 calls and dispatches for all emergency response agencies in Chattanooga, East Ridge, Red Bank, Collegedale, Signal Mountain and the unincorporated area of Hamilton County. Lookout Mountain and Soddy-Daisy have their own 9-1-1 systems.
The results of unification are impressive. The percentage of abandoned calls dropped 61% from 2007 to 2022 (the latest available statistics). Efficiency has also improved dramatically. The number of calls answered within three seconds or less increased by 88% from 2007 to 2022.
Since 2009, the District’s telecommunicators have answered more than 8.5 million calls, and have exceeded the national call handling standards, which call for 90% of all 9-1-1 calls to be answered within 15 seconds and 95% to be answered within 20 seconds.
In addition to improved efficiency, there have been significant technological advances since consolidation. The 9-1-1 Center was the first in the state to provide the “Text 9-1-1” service and “Prepared Live,” which enables the telecommunicators to see what’s happening through the caller’s smart phone. The 9-1-1 Center was the first in the state to provide the “PulsePoint” mobile phone application to improve the possibility of a victim for cardiac arrest calls will receive CPR immediately. Another improvement was the implementation of Mobile CAD and Automatic Vehicle Location (AVI) for public safety agencies.
“I have the privilege of serving the 9-1-1 Board of Directors and Hamilton County citizens from the initial creation of our emergency communications system to one of the current best practices districts in our nation,” said Board Chairman Dr. Richard Brown. “I thank the innovative and collaborative thinking of former city and county mayors who made consolidation a reality for us.” Dr. Brown said the current operations are reliable and infused with state-of-the-art technology. “Yet, our greatest assets are the outstanding women and men who deliver these mission critical services to all our public safety partners,” said Dr. Brown. “We pause to say thanks and to celebrate 15 years of excellent partnership and service delivery!”