New annexation law stirs 911 confusion
by JOYANNA LOVE Banner Senior Staff Writer
Jul 20, 2014 | 1248 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
New annexation laws will create more challenges for Bradley County 911 Center dispatchers in deciding whether to send city or county emergency responders to incidents near the city limits.

Dispatchers are already aware of some problem areas and the center is doing what it can to avoid sending the wrong department.

Recent state legislation has changed the way cities can expand, giving residents more of a voice. Land can now only be annexed by referendum or request of the owner. The law also means the city can no longer annex land or roads near a requested annexation that would make it more accessible within the city.

Angela Bledsoe, the Computer Aided Dispatch and Geographic Information Systems coordinator at Bradley County 911, said the new law is not in the best interest of emergency response.

“We have found the law, when it comes to moratorium [on annexation by ordinance] ... they do not take into account what they are doing to emergency services,” Bledsoe said.

An annexation approved last week by the Cleveland City Council creates a circle of city boundary around a piece of property still in the county, yet can only be accessed through city roads. Planners refer to this as creating a “doughnut hole.”

“This is what happens every time they do this — it creates a madhouse in dispatch trying to determine, ‘Do we send city, do we send county?’” Bledsoe said.

She pointed out there are other areas that can create confusion for new dispatchers.

Usually, the service to be sent is determined by the closest address to the incident.

“The way our CAD system is set up ... when they receive a 911 call it goes by address ranges,” Bledsoe said. “That will tell them that is in the county, so they will send county services.”

However, the dispatch process becomes complicated if the city/county line cuts through the person’s house or driveway.

Deciding whether to send city or county personnel to the scene of a car accident gets complicated by “doughnut hole annexation” because the street the person is on is in the city, yet the nearest address they can find to give 911 is not in the city.

“We get our information from callers. If they call us they are usually in pain, scared, mad, they’re emotions are running high,” Bledsoe said.

She said many callers will say a road name, but a specific address is often needed for emergency responders to know where to go.

In order to determine who to send to incidents near the city line, dispatchers often have to refer to their on-screen map. Dispatchers put in an address as soon as they get it from the caller and it automatically shows up on the map.

Bledsoe said because dispatchers are dealing with multiple calls at once, they may have to click back to a previous call to make a determination. Referring to the map takes time — time that is very precious in emergency situations, Bledsoe stressed.

In some situations ,the address given by a caller leads the county emergency service to be dispatched when it should have been the city.

“It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen,” 911 director Joe Wilson said.

Bledsoe said when this happens the city emergency service is then also dispatched to the scene. The center tries to minimize this through training because “... it’s been proven that it is more dangerous to have more emergency vehicles out on the roadway,” Bledsoe said.

She added, “What should happen if the county gets there and it should have been the city, they will work it until the city arrives or vice versa.”

To overcome the challenges presented by annexation and other address difficulties, each dispatcher is trained on common problem areas for deciding whether to send the city or the county. Dispatchers are also trained to ask more specific questions about location if the call is from an area near the city/county line.

“In our world, anything that takes another 15 seconds to ask is 15 seconds we are not sending emergency services,” Bledsoe said.

She also puts special notes on complicated locations, such as addresses that are only accessible from a road other than the one listed in their address.

Wilson said having the dispatchers for city and county in the same room helps minimize delays and confusion.

“They can work that out between themselves ... they are just a console apart,” Bledsoe said.

Prior to the 911 consolidation in 1997, the dispatchers for city and county emergency services were in separate buildings.

“We had to transfer a lot of calls, “ Wilson said. “And transfer is a four-letter word if you have an emergency … it really raised the stress level for the caller having to be transfered.”

The center does everything possible to keep the same dispatcher with a call from start to finish.

Wilson said representatives from outside jurisdictions have traveled to Bradley County to study the way the local 911 Center is operated.

“They work very well together,” Bledsoe said. “I would put our dispatchers up against anybody in the state. “

The 911 Center is one of many departments that is consulted on the impact of an annexation prior to approval. When an annexation is approved, Bledsoe said she inputs the new information to update the system.

The GIS map used by the 911 Center shows there are some properties where half of the driveway is in the city limits and the other half is not. Others show the city/county line down the middle of houses.

Community members can help eliminate some confusion for emergency responders by having their address prominently displayed on their homes or property.

The service that responds to an emergency call goes beyond simple jurisdiction.

Bledsoe said the correct department has to respond to the call for liability and legal reasons. Sending the wrong emergency responders can also affect the correct department’s logged response time when it is dispatched to the scene. This in turn affects the ratings that are given by professional rating organizations.