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About 37 times per day, on average, someone in Arlington calls 911 and then hangs up the phone.

It may not seem like such a big deal, but those calls come at a cost: of the dispatcher’s time — 3 minutes per call, more than an hour and a half a day — and sometimes the time of police officers who have to respond to a hang-up caller’s home to make sure they are okay.

The numbers are big when you add them up: nearly 20,000 hang up calls over the past 18 months and 1,000 hours of call taker time spent handling them.

To help combat that, Arlington County is asking people who accidentally call 911 to stay on the line and let the dispatcher know it was a mistake, instead of simply hanging up.

The county sent out the following press release on the matter on Wednesday.

If you accidentally call 9-1-1, stay on the line and let the call taker know it was a mistake. This allows the call taker to resolve your call more quickly and be ready for the next call coming in.

In the last 18 months, Arlington County’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) processed 19,906 abandoned calls, also called “9-1-1 hang ups.” Here’s how it all works:

  • As soon as a 9-1-1 call is initiated, it immediately enters the call processing system.
  • If the person making the call hangs up at any time after the call is initiated, the call is still presented to a call taker.
  • The call taker then attempts to contact the caller to ensure everything is okay.
  • Up to three return phone calls are made to the caller, including leaving a voicemail when available.
  • If the call originates from a landline phone, police are dispatched to check on the welfare of persons at that address.
  • If call takers can make contact and are assured there’s no problem, they cancel the dispatch of police officers.
  • On average, it takes three minutes for a call taker to process a 9-1-1 hang-up. That’s time a call taker isn’t available to receive other 9-1-1 calls. ECC call takers have spent almost 1,000 hours handling hang-ups over the last 18 months.

Remember, if you accidentally call 9-1-1, stay on the line. This allows call takers to be available for the next call, which may be a life-or-death situation.

And don’t forget, for those instances when you’re unable to call, you can now send a 9-1-1 text to our Emergency Communications Center.

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Morning Notes

County HQ Renovation Vote Delayed — The Arlington County Board last night agreed to defer consideration of renovations to county government headquarters until April. The Board will discuss the “‘opportunity costs’ for the $10 million in rent abatements that will fund part of the renovation project,” in the context of the current county budget discussions, according to Board Chair Katie Cristol. [Twitter]

Arlington Declines Amazon FOIA Request — A Freedom of Information Act request for more information about the county’s Amazon HQ2 bid, sent from the Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell, was denied on the grounds that the information was “exempt from disclosure.” At the County Board meeting this past weekend, several speakers called on the county to release more information about what it has offered Amazon. [Twitter, WTOP]

Letter: APS Should Revise Gym Shorts Policy — Eighth-grade students wrote a letter to the editor encouraging Arlington Public Schools to revise its policy on girls’ gym shorts. Per the letter: “The shorts we are required to wear by the school system cause many of us embarrassment because the wide, open legs allow others to see our undergarments, especially during floor exercises. Additionally, the current gym shorts are too big for petite girls.” [InsideNova]

Arlington TV Now in HD — “You can now watch Arlington TV (ATV), the County’s government cable channel, in high definition (HD) on Comcast Xfinity. From live County Board meetings to original programming about Arlington, viewers with HD sets can now watch the same programming on Channel 1085 on Comcast Xfinity’s HD tier.” [Arlington County]

Auditor Releases Report on ECC Overtime — Arlington County Auditor Chris Horton has released a report on overtime incurred by the county’s Emergency Communications Center, which handles 911 calls and dispatches first responders. The ECC’s overtime costs were about $1.4 million last year. Horton found that “a more efficient training process could result in greater staffing efficiency, and potentially reduce overtime expenses.” [Arlington County]

Four Phases of Snow Removal — For those who need a reminder after this anemic winter, a YouTube video explains the county’s four-stage snow removal process. [YouTube]

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Morning Notes

Arlington Gets New Emergency Management Director — Arlington County has named Aaron Miller as its new Director of the Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management. He is currently the Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for the City of New Orleans. [Arlington County]

Gunston Students Win Anti-Bullying Video Competition — Two eighth-grade girls from Gunston Middle School have won a second-place prize from the AT&T Film Awards for their cyberbullying prevention video. The duo will receive $2,000 in camera equipment and a one-day workshop at Gunston with professional filmmakers. [WJLA]

Vihstadt Could Face Tough Reelection — Democrats are energized by their opposition to President Donald Trump, and that could mean an especially challenging reelection for independent County Board member John Vihstadt. A blue wave in the 2018 midterms may make Vihstadt more vulnerable to his eventual Democratic challenger, one local political blogger suggests. [Blue Virginia]

Expensive Morning Commute on I-66 — “The toll to travel along eastbound Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia hit $46.75 Wednesday morning, about a week after it notched a record high.” [Washington Post]

Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman

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Arlington County and the City of Alexandria will be working together on further upgrades to their respective 911 systems.

The Arlington County Board is set to approve a Memorandum of Understanding at its meeting on Saturday (October 21), paving the way for cooperation with the Alexandria City Council and interoperability between the two 911 systems.

Last year Arlington added text-to-911 capability, 5.5 years after first announcing, during a visit from the then-FCC chairman, that it was working to give residents the ability to send text messages to 911. Other “Next Generation 911” capabilities are still in the works.

In a report on the MOU, county staff said the two jurisdictions working together will help “improve operational standards and increase public safety in the region,” as part of a regional goal to improve the efficiency of handling emergency calls.

“Towards that end, Arlington County and the City of Alexandria have proposed an MOU for the planning, design, procurement, installation, configuration, operation and lifecycle management of a new shared NG 9-1-1 system to support these goals of interoperability and improve efficiency of call processing and public safety emergency response,” staff wrote. “Arlington County and the City of Alexandria have both planned for and allocated funding to improve their 9-1-1 call processing systems.”

The MOU will help create an integrated system for both jurisdictions, meaning they can process both emergency and non-emergency calls from either jurisdiction’s primary and backup 9-1-1 center.

Both will also be able to answer each other’s telephone calls when the other cannot do so, such as during a system failure or an evacuation.

The county will be the “fiduciary agent” for the scheme, meaning it handles all the finances. Alexandria will provide an inter-jurisdictional transfer of money to fund its side of the project.

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One of Arlington County’s safety departments has undergone a staff-led rebranding effort, complete with a new name and a new look.

As of July 1, emergency management employees and those in the county’s Emergency Communications Center work in the Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management. Department staff voted for the name from several suggestions.

“While we do not often change the name of our departments, and not all departments have logos, in the past 15 years some have had name changes,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz. Two examples are the current Department of Environmental Services and the Department of Parks and Recreation, which both underwent reorganizations.

At the heart of the Office of Emergency Management’s rebranding is an effort to be more inclusive of the entire department’s staff. The two initially had been separate divisions — OEM fell under the fire department and ECC under the police department — but they merged into the same department in 2004. Still, they kept their separate functions: Emergency management staff plan public preparedness campaigns and hazard and crisis mitigation, while communications staff run the 911 call center and dispatch first responders to the public.

The name, however, technically only covered the emergency management section, not the communications staff. Department director Jack Brown sought out a new name that more accurately represents both functions.

“The mission sets are a bit different, but bringing them together under one department makes a lot of sense,” said Brown. “The previous name only reflected part of the mission. We are on the same team, and our name now reflects that.”

Schwartz confirmed that these types of name changes should benefit both the county staff and the public. “Our goal is to ensure that each department’s mission and purpose is clear, both internally and publicly… We believe the new name makes the work of this critical team clear to all,” he said.

Instead of hiring an independent consultant for the rebranding, the project was fueled entirely by ECC and OEM staff, including the logo design. The logo incorporates elements representing various aspects of the department’s safety missions. For example, the radio tower represents communications, and the lightning and rain drops represent preparedness for weather events. The individual parts are encompassed within a pentagon shape.

“Our set of missions are within that pentagon. It’s a symbol, it reminds us why we’re here,” Brown said. “We’re here not just because of the Pentagon and 9/11. We’re here because really bad things happen and we want to prevent them from happening. If they do happen, we’re here to help the public get through it.”

That being said, Brown adds: “But these symbols are nothing without our people and their character. Our brand is our professionalism, our work ethic and our mutual commitment to public safety. I think these changes reflect that and I’m proud of this department and its future.”

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Sprint mobile phone customers may get a busy signal in Arlington and other parts of the D.C. region when they try to make an emergency call.

The Arlington Alerts system issued the following notice shortly after noon today.

Sprint cellular service is affected throughout the area. If you receive a busy signal when you call 9-1-1, you should attempt to text to 9-1-1, use a landline phone or use a cellphone covered by another provider.

The problem is also affecting Sprint customers in Fairfax County, the Washington Post reports.

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Arlington County is out with a new video Public Service Announcement, reminding residents that they can now text 911 if they can’t call.

The video shows a humble office worker saving the day when he spots a bad guy trying to break into cars in his parking garage.

For the record, the “bad guy” in the video, Arlington County Public Information Officer Peter Golkin, is in fact regarded as one of the nicest guys in county government. Also, as an avid bike commuter, it’s quite doubtful that he would ever feel the need to steal a car.

More information about Arlington’s text-to-911 initiative can be found on the county website.

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A 911 dispatcher in Arlington's Emergency Communications CenterFive and a half years after it was first proposed in Arlington, Text-to-911 capability is finally a reality.

The ability to send a text message to 911 launched today in Arlington. In a press release, officials encouraged those reporting an emergency to call instead of text, unless a disability or a safety risk prevents you from doing so.

From Arlington County:

Arlington County today launched Text to 9-1-1, making it possible to send a text message to our Emergency Communications Center if you can’t call 9-1-1.

“In an emergency, we always prefer that you call 9-1-1,” said Deputy County Manager for Public Safety James Schwartz. “But if you can’t call, you will now be able to text and get the help you need.”

Arlington joins other jurisdictions across the region and the nation who are adding Text to 9-1-1 to their emergency communications options, and reminding callers “call if you can, text if you can’t.”

“Use it only when you cannot establish voice communications or when speaking into a phone would present a significant safety risk,” Schwartz said. He noted, however, that Text to 9-1-1- is particularly useful for persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired.

Voice calls to 9-1-1 are preferred because they make it easier for dispatchers to give commands that can be extremely useful in providing medical assistance such as CPR and basic first aid instructions.

“It is important that anyone who does have to use Text to 9-1-1 provide as much information as possible, including exact location and nature of the incident,” said Jack Brown, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management.

How it works

Text-to-9-1-1 uses SMS text messaging technology. The Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC) can now receive and send text messages to those in Arlington and Falls Church in need of emergency assistance who can’t make a 9-1-1 phone call. The system, Telecommunications System, Inc., also provides dispatchers with mapping capabilities to help pinpoint locations where text messages are received.

The system allows dispatchers to text up to 250 characters and can handle text messaging both in our main Emergency Communications Center as well as our back-up center.

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If you find yourself in immediate physical danger while walking through a neighborhood, heading to a nearby fire station may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the Arlington County Fire Department hopes to change that with its “Safe Haven lobbies.”

Although it is not yet widely known, a number of the county’s fire stations have been outfitted with special lobby features to protect a person who goes there for help.

The person in danger can go through the outside doors and into the fire station lobby, where the second set of doors leading to the rest of the fire station is always locked. When the person pushes the button on an emergency box inside the lobby, the outside doors automatically lock and the box calls 911. Someone at the county’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) answers as if it were a typical 911 call placed from a phone. They speak to the person to determine the type of emergency and will then dispatch the appropriate emergency responders to the location.

There are cameras on the ceiling of the lobby that turn on when the emergency button is pushed. While waiting for police or fire fighters to respond, staff at the ECC will monitor the cameras to see what is happening during the call. The outside lobby doors will remain locked until ECC workers hang up the call when they determine the caller is safe.

The system can be used at any time, even if the station is empty while fire fighters are out on a call.

“The fire house is somewhere you can always come if you’re in danger. If you need help or have to call 911, you can come to any fire house,” said ACFD spokeswoman Lt. Sarah Marchegiani. “It’s important to know that if you live close to one of these locations, one of the five that have it, that this exists and it’s another safety for you.”

All of the newer fire stations — 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 — have a Safe Haven equipped lobby. Fire Station No. 9 was the first to be outfitted with the system when it was renovated in the late 1990s. The older stations were not built with lobbies, but the goal is to eventually install this type of a system in all of Arlington’s stations when they are upgraded or replaced.

So far nobody has used the system, but it’s unclear if that is because citizens haven’t had the need or if they’re not yet aware the Safe Haven lobbies exist.

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Arlington's Emergency Communications Center“Arlington 911, where is your emergency?”

A call comes in for a seemingly typical vehicle accident on a seemingly typical morning in Arlington. But for the rattled caller, the situation is anything but typical. Enter Lynne Putnam, Emergency Communications Tech III. Putnam has 30 years of experience as a 911 dispatcher, 27 of those spent in Arlington County. She attempts to soothe the caller while transferring the person, because it turns out the accident did not occur in Arlington’s jurisdiction.

“Stay on the line, ma’am, I’m sending you to Park Police.”

Putnam remains on the line with the caller until she can hear the person speaking with a representative for the U.S. Park Police. As with this case, Putnam frequently must make sense out of a caller’s choppy phrases and gather all the facts she can. Often, callers panic and collecting the necessary information becomes a more daunting task than it may first appear.

“I think the part I like best is I’m able to help people in their time of need,” said Putnam. “I like being the calming voice on the other side helping you through your emergency.”

Adding to the difficulty of call taking is the ECC goal to answer each 911 call within 90 seconds. Although not easy to rapidly collect information and then move on to the next call, it’s the ECC employees’ speedy actions that help maintain Arlington County Fire Department’s four minute average response time.

“We’re really proud of that,” said Putnam.

Arlington's Emergency Communications CenterAnswering 911 calls is only part of the job for Putnam and her co-workers at Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center in the Courthouse neighborhood; they also train as police and fire dispatchers. Although it takes about 18 months for the average employee to become fully trained in all three disciplines, it allows for more flexibility and employees can help out wherever needed.

Dispatchers are the voices the public hears when listening to scanners. They deal with calls to the non-emergency police line as well as emergencies called in to 911. Based on the information entered into the system by the 911 call takers, dispatchers determine which response units should head to the scene and how many units should respond. They examine which units are closest and call them to the scene via police and fire radios, explain the emergency as best they can and sometimes give directions.

“The mechanics of the job look easy, answering phones and inputting information,” said Emergency Communications Tech III Sheree Rymenams. “But there’s a lot of judgment involved for each call.”

Dispatchers say occasionally their jobs can be “like that telephone game” in that the details or severity of the original call can end up being nothing like what officers actually find on the scene. With the long hours, multi-tasking and intense situations sometimes comes nervousness, despite having cue cards at each cubicle with prompts for what to ask in a wide variety of situations. After all, emergency responders’ and citizens’ lives are on the line.

“You can’t worry constantly. You just have to do what you’re trained to do, what you’re supposed to do,” said Rymenams. “It’s a team effort.”

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House fire in Lyon ParkSome Lyon Park residents have expressed concern about Arlington’s 911 system after waiting on hold while calling in last Wednesday’s house fire on N. Highland Street. Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management, however, says everything worked just as it was supposed to.

Some callers reported hearing a recorded message while they were put on hold for several minutes, according to an ARLnow.com tipster. OEM Director Jack Brown confirmed that there were callers who heard a message asking them to stay on the line while the system was flooded with calls. Anyone who hung up was then called back to verify that they were safe and to check if they still needed emergency assistance, exactly like any other 911 hang up.

“It’s not an overburden for us, it’s just very busy in the initial stages of an emergency,” said Emergency Communications Center Commander John Crawford. “The system was working and the people were working. The only issue we get is when lots of people call all at once.”

Crawford explained that Arlington’s 911 call center has a minimum of 10 people staffing it at all times. Typically, calls immediately go through to a staffer. But when an emergency occurs, such as during the Lyon Park fire, there are so many calls that each one cannot be answered immediately.

“The phones just literally lit up. We knew it was something significant,” Crawford said. “If 10 people call 911, the eleventh person is going to get a pre-recorded message asking them to hold. We purposely put that recording in there because in years past the phone would just ring and ring, and people would question if they called the right number.”

The automatic call distribution system immediately sends holding callers to the first available staff member as soon as a line frees up. Once information is gathered from the first couple of callers, the rest of the calls typically move more quickly. Staffers make every effort to gather information from each caller as rapidly as possible to avoid missing an emergency.

“You never know, that eleventh call or twelfth call might be someone in a horrific accident on G.W. Parkway not related to the fire, so we have to go through every call as quickly as possible,” said Crawford. “I have to talk to you but I don’t have to talk to you long. To some people it may sound rude, but I need to cut to the chase and get the info I need and then hang up the phone.”

Arlington County 911 dispatch centerCrawford noted that Arlington’s 911 call center received significant upgrades five years ago, including expanding the number of phone lines from 16 to 48. Improvements have been made to prevent the system from “locking up” as it did during the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

“On 9/11, the phones rang and lit up so quick that it locked the system up. Literally hundreds. We couldn’t even get to them,” said Crawford.

9/11 also put into play the rare “code red” alert that gets sent out to staff pagers and phones, ordering them back to work to help with a large emergency. With the additional lines that have been added since that time, the center could now have 48 call takers working at the same time — one for each phone line.

“Thank God, other than a couple of disasters I know of, we haven’t had need to upstaff to that degree,” said Crawford.

Arlington’s 911 center does add extra staff members during anticipated busy times, such as weekend nights and planned events like races. However, on the average day, the 10 or so call takers need to deal with any incidents that arise.

Crawford noted that it’s important for people to continue to call when they see or hear something occur because you never know if another person will call or not. He asks residents to be patient if they’re put on hold during a flood of calls, and promises the call takers are doing the best they can.

“We work for the citizens, those are our customers,” Crawford said. “We try to provide the best possible customer service to them.”

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