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City unveils new 911 system

Emergency callers in Suffolk began noticing more questions from the 911 operators who took their calls this week, but the new process is part of a program designed to make the dispatch system safer and more efficient, officials say.

On Tuesday, Suffolk Emergency Communications implemented the Medical Priority Dispatch System, a nationally standardized protocol-based system that will be continuously updated with the most recent medical information.

“It’s so much more advanced now,” Suffolk Police Sgt. Sandy Springle said.

Standing in Suffolk’s emergency communications hub on Market Street, Springle demonstrated the old system that was used to prioritize medical calls — a set of cards that provide guidance on how to handle medical emergencies.

Seated in front of her, emergency communications supervisor Reanita Goodwyn handled a call using the new system, which provides step-by-step guidance on what to tell the caller and how to get more information to provide to responders.

The new system cost more than $51,000, which was paid by a grant from wireless 911 funds. The cost includes software, three days of training for dispatchers and two years of maintenance.

“This is no cost to the city,” Springle said, adding the city has previously received new computers and radios for a backup communications center from the same grant source.

When a call arrives at Suffolk’s emergency communications center, the answerer’s computer automatically displays the caller’s phone number and location. If the call is a medical problem, the dispatcher will begin using the Medical Priority Dispatch System to determine the severity of the problem.

The dispatcher can type in a symptom mentioned by the caller, and the system automatically suggests a series of routine questions for the dispatcher to ask the caller, such as age, gender, pregnancy status and history of the same type of problem.

The system then automatically generates a report for responders to take with them when they are dispatched, and it also assigns a priority to the call. The priority does not dictate when emergency personnel respond, because all responses are immediate. It only dictates how many of them respond.

Once all the preliminary information is collected, responders are dispatched, and the system continues to suggest questions to ask and things to tell the caller. For example, the caller is reminded to unlock the door, turn on outside lights if it is dark and have someone meet paramedics outside, if possible. More information is gathered on the patient’s condition, and that information also is relayed to responders.

“The citizens, when they call, are going to notice we’re asking a lot more questions, but their call is still being dispatched while questions are answered,” Springle said. “Help is still on the way.”

The system is updated with the latest medical standards by a board of doctors that meets monthly to evaluate the system’s criteria, Springle said. Localities that use the system also can submit concerns to the board.

“To us, it’s a big step,” Springle said. “I don’t want somebody to call here and not be able to get some type of help. That’s what our citizens expect, that if they call they’re going to get some type of assistance. I’m glad we can provide that.”