Audit: Atlanta fire, medical emergency response time too long

The time that passes between an Atlanta 911 operator taking a fire or medical emergency call and relaying that information to dispatchers is more than 10 times the recommended national average, according to a report from the city's auditor.

Auditor Leslie Ward said Tuesday the damage done by that delay is only compounded by delays further in the process of dispatching fire fighters, who are usually the first responders in emergencies, or paramedics.

"Quicker responses reduce property damage and the chance of injury or loss of life," Ward wrote in the report that will be presented to the City Council's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

The national standard is that information should be transferred from a 911 operator to a dispatcher within 30 seconds at least 95 percent of the time. In Atlanta, however, that first transfer of information takes as long as 337 seconds -- more than 5 1/2 minutes -- in 95 percent of the cases. The national standard is also that it should take less than a minute to dispatch emergency medical responders but in Atlanta, that took more than three minutes in 90 percent of the calls last year.

"It could cost both lives and property," Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief Kelvin Cochran said of the delays.

The audit was begun to review Atlanta Fire Rescue staffing, but Ward said the focus shifted to the handling of calls.

She noted that her office was unable to do a complete audit of response time because 90 percent of the calls for a medical emergency are routed through Grady Hospital first before the more serious ones are returned to a fire department dispatcher. That means once the call leaves the city's E911 system, there is no "time recorded," Ward said. "There's a gap."

Cochran said he was not surprised by the findings and the report only confirmed what he already knew.

"It's the reality of what we have faced during the years our staffing was decreased," Cochran said.

He said the fire department and the Atlanta Police Department, which operates the 911 call center, have implemented a system that uses "trigger words" to prompt the 911 operator to bypass the Grady system and send the call directly to a fire rescue dispatcher.

That should get first responders to medical emergencies faster, he said.

APD said in a statement the agency had done a one-month analysis of last November and found the use of trigger words -- like someone is having a "heart attack" or "bleeding profusely" -- has improved the operation.

"We have met and exceeded the national standard of answering 911 calls in 90 seconds or less," the statement said. APD did not respond to the question if that review also looked at the time required to transmit information once the call is answered.

The audit found Fire Rescue's "overall coverage is pretty good," though there are some areas overstaffed while others are short.

The audit found some areas that did not have a fire station within two miles: the Peachtree Battle area in north Atlanta, Cascade west of downtown and Princeton Lakes in southwest Atlanta. Cochran said the city is adding fire stations in those areas.

Also the city needs at least four fire fighters, three of them certified as emergency medical technicians or paramedics, assigned to each truck on every shift, Cochran and Ward said.

According to the report, Atlanta Fire Rescue lost 368 positions and its budget was cut about $15 million in 2009. Funds have since been restored along with 120 positions.

A recently announced federal grant will also provide funds for 75 additional fire fighters.

But that will only "increase the efficiency in handling fire incidents," while 75 percent of the Fire Rescue calls are for medical and other non-fire emergencies, Ward said.