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Area 911 calls at all-time high: Cellphones, population could be reasons why, officials say

Becky Ault , director of the Grand Forks Public Safety Answering Point, (PSAP) talks with a dispatcher at the dispatch center recently. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
A dispatcher monitors calls at the PSAP Friday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
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When Vickie Anderson’s phone rings at work, it could be a car accident, a fire or almost any other emergency imaginable.

As she answers the call, Anderson refers to the four computer screens in front of her for information on the caller, maps and a schedule of officers. She works quickly to locate the 911 caller and get help to the emergency scene.

Anderson and her co-workers have been answering many more calls lately at the 911 Public Safety Answering Point for Grand Forks County as the call volume for the dispatch center has spiked to record-breaking numbers in the past two years.

Dispatchers and responders say they’re not sure what exactly has caused the increased number of calls, but they guess that cellphones, population growth and increased awareness are contributing factors.

Number of calls

The dispatch center’s total number of calls was at an all-time high in 2013 with 127,460, said Becky Ault, director of the 911 center.

That’s up from the 125,284 total calls in 2012, Ault said.

But although the total calls were highest in 2013, the total calls for service, in which officers actually respond to an emergency, were higher in 2012, according to dispatch center statistics.

The gap between calls for service and total number of calls can come from people calling 911 without an emergency or the center receiving more than one 911 call about the same incident, Ault said.

For example, Anderson said she could receive 10 to 12 calls on a visible accident like at the intersection of DeMers Avenue and Washington Street, but those 10 to 12 calls are only one call for service.

Almost every agency saw an increase in calls for service in 2012, Ault said.

Grand Forks Police Department calls jumped from 41,306 in 2011 to 44,860 in 2012, and dropped slightly to 43,247 in 2013, according to dispatch center statistics.

The police department had the highest increase of the 31 agencies Ault provided statistics for, but other agencies were similar, with calls increasing in 2012 and decreasing just slightly in 2013.

Reasons for increase

Margaret Emanuel, dispatch center supervisor, mainly attributes the increase in calls to more people having cellphones.

“With cellphones, your phone’s readily available, so it’s quick to call in,” she said. People who see an accident and have to wait until they’re home to call 911 may change their mind or forget, she said.

Eighty-nine percent of 911 calls were from cellphones in 2013, Ault said.

Grand Forks’ growing population could also be contributing to the increased number of calls, said Art Culver, manager of ambulance services at Altru Health System.

“I truly believe that there’s more people living in our community than we really know,” he said.

Altru Ambulance had its highest number of calls in 2013, with 6,663 calls. That’s about 1,000 more ambulance calls than in 2011.

Another reason for the call volume could be more public awareness to crime, said Lt. Mike Ferguson of the Grand Forks Police Department.

There are also some crimes that are becoming more common, Ferguson said, such as identity theft. He said the police department will release its annual report sometime in February with more information on specific crime increases or decreases.

Increased workload

Anderson said working as a dispatcher is stressful, but she didn’t attribute that to the increased number of calls.

The dispatch center’s 15-person staff is able to work smoothly, Ault said, but the higher call volume makes it difficult when someone retires, is on vacation or is sick.

Right now, there aren’t plans to hire additional dispatchers, but Ault said it might be considered, depending on the 2015 budget.

There are usually three dispatchers on each shift, sometimes four, Emanuel said. There must be at least two dispatchers working at any given time, she said.

“They keep up,” Emanuel said. “They maintain.”

Anderson said she likes that she and the other dispatchers work 10-hour shifts, because they get more days off in a row.

“We really need the time to decompress after a few days,” she said.

The police department’s staff is similar to the dispatch center’s — able to handle the heavy workload, but a little strained when someone retires and someone new has to be trained, Ferguson said.

“We’re running nonstop, 24/7,” he said.

The police department has had 82 officers for several years, Ferguson said, and there aren’t plans to add additional officers.

Grand Forks Fire Department and Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office officials said their staffs are keeping up with the demand.

Altru Ambulance may add more staff if this growth continues, Culver said, and he expects it to.

The last time Altru Ambulance added more staff was in 2007, when the ambulance service experienced a similar jump in call volume, Culver said.

But despite the added work, dispatchers and responders agreed that it’s good more people are calling 911 in emergencies.

“We can’t be everywhere,” said Sheriff Bob Rost, “so we’ve got to rely on people calling and telling us what’s going on.”

Charly Haley
Charly Haley covers city government for the Grand Forks Herald. As night reporter, she also has many general assignments. Before working at the Herald, she was a reporter at the Jamestown Sun and interned at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes Newspapers and the St. Cloud Times. Haley is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead, and her hometown is Sartell, Minn.
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