Published: Apr 03, 2012 07:33 PM
Modified: Apr 03, 2012 07:41 PM
CHAPEL HILL - Orange County will begin studying how to improve its Emergency Medical Services and its 911 Center.
The county commissioners unanimously approved spending up to $28,000 on a two-part study to find improvements in technology, staffing, data, training and planning.
The county will contract with consultant Local Government Solutions on the study, which will be presented to commissioners in August. The consultant will also work with the county’s new EMS services work group made up of EMS representatives from across the county.
The county continues to struggle with call processing and response delays because of money, technology and lack of collaboration and communication between different county departments.
It also has struggled with its response times because of outdated 911 call center technology. Orange EMS’ 17-minute average response time is five minutes longer than the national standard.
In Orange County, 911 call processing takes an average of 2 minutes, 15 seconds. The state benchmark is 1 minute, 30 seconds. County departments rely on an outdated radio system, typically used for state highway patrols that frequently drops signals when a fire fighter enters a building.
The first part of a different EMS report, done by a Massachussetts consulting firm and released last year, said the county needs to improve its technology and communication and collaboration between its 10 departments.
Some rural fire chiefs have disputed the report’s findings and methodology, but County Manager Frank Clifton said it confirmed what the county already knew.
The EMS work group unanimously approved a county study by Local Government Solutions, but Bill Waddell, president of the Orange Grove fire department, asked commissioners to wait until the group could further discuss its own solutions to fire-service problems.
The study is premature, he said. “Support the workgroup now engaged in the needed discussion. Please wait three to 12 months before retaining a consultant to develop a long term plan.”
But the EMS workgroup did support the county study by its vote, said Commissioner Barry Jacobs.
“Letting the workgroup do its work includes its approving that we move along with this study,” he said.
Commissioners approved funding for the study after the Orange County Fire Chief’s Association presented its long-term plan for fire services.
The association, made up of volunteer fire chiefs county-wide, worked with the UNC School of Government over the last several months to find ways to improve communication technology and response time.
Orange County relies on 10 volunteer fire departments to respond to fire emergencies outside the towns. The county would be paying even more if it had to pay its firefighters, which it is not considering. According to the report, it would cost the county at least $17 million a year to replace volunteers with paid staff.
The plan has eight goals including improving communication between the departments with a new radio system. It aims to work with the county to updated its 911 Telecommunications Center with an improved computer network that can dispatch calls within 90 seconds or less of the time by January 14.
The county currently uses a computer system running software that is 20 years old, said Frank Montes de Oca, Orange County's emergency medical services director.
With the current computer system, when a 911 call comes in to the 911 center, officers need to first locate the appropriate emergency vehicles then dispatch it to the scene, which increases response times, he said.
A new computer system would allow the county to immediately track and send emergency vehicles to an emergency. The county needs new software, faster computers to process calls, and a new radio system and more radio towers in the county to implement the system. The improvements are expensive, but worth it, he said.