PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The next time you call 911 in Pinellas County, you may not see both a fire truck and ambulance responding to the call. Tuesday, county leaders voted unanimously to approve a new system called priority dispatch.
That means starting June 1, if you call 911 with a minor issue, you will only get an ambulance to respond. It also means you may not see that ambulance for 10-20 minutes if the situation isn’t urgent.
The cities of Clearwater, Largo, Safety Harbor, Seminole and the Lealman Fire District opted in. Other cities in Pinellas can join into the priority dispatch as well.
County leaders are working to tackle the problem of thousands of non-emergency calls coming into 9-1-1 call centers. Jim Fogarty, Pinellas County’s Director of Safety and Emergency Services says those calls make up between 10-15% of all 9-1-1 calls, but it’s enough to delay response to true emergency situations.
Now, Pinellas County will start categorizing calls coming in based on how dire the emergency is.
The plan is already working in Hillsborough County to reduce how many crews show up to handle calls.
With the change, not every call would warrant both a Sunstar Ambulance and a fire truck. That way county leaders can preserve resources for more severe calls.
911 call takers will have 32 categories to choose from when someone calls. Alpha is the lowest level emergency. Echo is a life-threatening call.
The county estimates the average response times for non-emergency calls could go up five minutes, but the response times could go down for calls for heart attacks, drownings and other life or death scenarios.
Fogarty estimates 16,500 calls a year come from people who are sick or have minor falls.
“For example, we had one person who is wheelchair bound call 9-1-1 90 times in two months for help getting up two stairs. Not stair cases. Two single stairs,” Fogarty explained.
Not everyone is on board with priority dispatch. Richard Pauley, the President of St. Petersburg's Association of Firefighters Union, says it could put citizens in danger.
“I think there’s room for error and we feel people could fall through the cracks,” Pauley explained. “When someone calls 911, it’s usually the worst day of their life. If they incorrectly assess if someone is not breathing or has a pulse, it could impact the emergency resources they receive.”
County commissioner Kathleen Peters voiced similar concerns Tuesday. "I am apprehensive only because I don't want one person to end up in cardiac arrest and maybe die because we decided to change something for the right reasons and then have something terrible happen," she explained.
Fogarty says 9-1-1 dispatchers will carefully handle each call to determine the level of emergency. He compared the new system to how police officers are currently dispatched. "The law enforcement community has been doing this for years where if you're faced with a burglar currently entering your house, you get an immediate response. If someone broke into your home 4 days ago, it will be less of an urgent response," Fogarty explained.
Heather Burford, the city of Seminole Fire Chief agrees. "This is long overdue. We have become a catch all for people's heath care sometimes. I think in the end when the data flows in, we will see the positive results of this change."