IN-DEPTH: Safety Concerns About New Minneapolis 911 Dispatch Software

November 16, 2018 09:51 AM

A computer program used to process 911 calls in Minneapolis is putting first responders and the public in danger, according to the head of the city’s police union and a former dispatcher.

Minneapolis resident Matt Pelikan called 911 April 23 after seeing a man in the skyway who needed help.

"If I was the person on the ground and there was someone there to call for help, I'd want the person to come as soon as possible,” Pelikan said.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS obtained a recording of Pelikan’s 911 call. In it, the dispatcher can be heard asking when the incident happened and then repeating the same question 30 seconds later:

And, even though Pelikan mentioned the man was maced at the start of the call, the dispatcher doesn’t ask about an ambulance until more than three minutes into the call. 

“Listening to it, I realized help wasn’t even on the way until we had gone through several minutes of a conversation,” Pelikan said.

Pelikan’s 911 call was answered at the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center. Dispatchers in Minneapolis have been using software called ProQA since July 2017. The program prompts dispatchers to ask specific questions, in a specific order, based on different emergency situations. 

Carri Sampson-Spande was a dispatcher in Minneapolis for 24 years. She said she resigned in September because of ProQA. 

“Because seconds save lives,” Sampson-Spande said. 

Sampson-Spande said her two decades of experience often told her to ask different questions, in a different order, than what the software was giving her. And, she worried not following the program would have eventually cost her her job.

"I felt like I was deciding do I want to keep my job and be compliant or do I want to help somebody and I don't feel like I should be in that position,” she said.

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Bob Kroll with the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis said the union also has concerns about ProQA.

"People will call and report a car accident without injuries and they are asking if there are any weapons present,” Kroll said, as an example of an irrelevant question.

Kroll said he’s most alarmed by officers arriving at scenes without knowing suspect descriptions because dispatchers haven’t gotten to those questions yet in the protocol. 

"It delays information getting from the 911 pickup to the officers getting dispatched,” Kroll said.

Christine McPherson is interim director of Minneapolis 911. When asked about if officers arrive at scenes without suspect descriptions she acknowledged it happens, but said it happened before the city started using ProQa as well.

McPherson said the software’s scripted lines of questioning, called protocols, are designed to improve the consistency of 911 calls. She pushed back against the idea.

"No. Absolutely not,” McPherson said.

To support that, the city provided records of the average time it takes from answering a 911 call to it being dispatched. McPherson said the average has not significantly changed. 

In June 2017, before dispatchers started using ProQA, records show the average time for the center’s highest priority calls was 1 minute, 14 seconds. In June 2018, with ProQA in use, the average increased 8 seconds to 1 minute, 22 seconds.

"It is concerning to me because this is something where sometimes seconds or minutes make a life and death difference or make a difference in being able to locate a suspect,” Pelikan said.

"Is this program working?" 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reporter Matt Belanger asked McPherson. 

“It could be better. Yes it's working, but it could be better,” McPherson said.

McPherson said before ProQA dispatchers would sometimes forget to ask key questions.

"They were getting the information but they weren't always getting the right information for every single call,” she said.

ProQA was developed by Priority Dispatch Corporation. The company’s website says it is designed to “improve emergency call taking efficiency … reducing liability risks and increasing responder safety.”

ProQA came under fire in Salt Lake City in 2015. Officials there cited similar concerns, that ProQA was slowing the flow of critical information to the field and leaving callers frustrated with repetitive questions.

The company said it’s addressed those concerns and the version Minneapolis bought for more than half a million dollars is updated.

"This is the way of the future for 911,” McPherson said.

Right now, dispatchers occasionally have their calls reviewed to determine how well they are following ProQA. McPherson stands behind the need for the program but says she’s looking at allowing Minneapolis dispatchers more flexibility to deviate from the script. The city says no dispatcher has been disciplined or fired for failing to follow the questions as scripted by ProQA.

"We knew it was going to be a difficult transition and we expect it's going to take anywhere between two and four years to have all of our staff on board," McPherson said.

Sampson-Spande said she sees an easier solution.

"Get rid of it. Super easy. Get rid of it,” she said.

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