Tuesday, December 17, 2013

411: 911 needs to call 311?

411 is the number for information. 311 is the number for city services in many municipalities, including San Antonio, TX. It's the "non-emergency" service number. 911 is the iconic emergency call number for police, fire, and other first responders. In San Antonio, the 911 system is in trouble.

The national standard for response from dial to first responder arrival is six (6) minutes.

In parts of San Antonio, fire and emergency medical service (EMS - ambulances) meet that standard less than 20% of the time. In other areas, their response times are better, meeting that time about 80% of the time. 

Why The Long Wait?

Some citizens have complained about longer waiting times. Times should be calculated from the time the number is dialed until responders arrive on scene. Usually, however, they are calculated from the time the 911 operator dispatches the responder.

There have been allegations of citizens placed "on hold" before even being asked for the nature of the request for help. There have been allegations of citizens claiming having to wait up to ten minutes for an operator to answer the call. In November, Jaie Avila of San Antonio's Television Channel 4 uncovered cases of City 911 operators acting negligently and unprofessionally. She and her team discovered operators sleeping on the job, failing to verify information, and walking away from their desks, ignoring calls, and taking breaks without a relief.

Jaie's article also touches on another layer of the issue at hand. The city official responsible for supervising the 911 call center was under investigation for misconduct.

"We uncovered that one of the people who was supposed to be supervising dispatchers was himself being investigated for misconduct. Communications Supervisor Jason Gentry was accused of theft of time.

"According to investigative documents, Gentry was accused of leaving early or not showing up to work at all. Gentry was on administrative leave for more than two months, so taxpayers paid his salary while Gentry had most of the summer off. Gentry denies the allegation and is now back at work even though investigators substantiated the allegations against him.

"Chief McManus said Gentry was going to be fired, but McManus decided on the lesser punishment.

" 'We reviewed his file. He really didn't have anything in his file. So, I reconsidered the termination recommendation,' McManus said.

"Gentry had to reimburse the city for days he didn't show up to work, he received a two week unpaid suspension and is no longer a supervisor."


911 problems: Policy, Political, Regulatory, Systemic, or Symptomatic of Complacency and Negligence?

There are also rumors that operators have been told to ignore calls from certain citizens.

One story an anonymous source related states that a disabled man residing in San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) Section 8 "HUD" low-income housing is being ignored. The man has called to report drug and gang related activity in his housing development.

Drug-related activity in SAHA/HUD housing is supposed to result in immediate termination of housing. In other words, get caught selling or using drugs in SAHA/HUD housing and you are evicted and disqualified from the program.

See page 7 of this SAHA publication. Section 9.(c) states that landlords must place the following in the lease:
Provision that drug-related criminal activity engaged in by the tenant, any household member, or any guest on or near the premises, or any person under the tenant’s control on the premises is ground to terminate tenancy.
If the disabled citizen's allegations are correct, then why are his calls being ignored? Why will police not respond to calls and at least investigate? It could be that the suspicions were investigated a few times already and found unfounded. It could be that neighborhood is one of those where "police fear to tread". It could be something else as well.

If true, one may logically conclude it links to allegations of rampant corruption in the city. Evicting SAHA/HUD tenants due to drug or gang activity would mean fewer "residents served" by the taxpayer funded program. That, in turn, would equate to fewer state and federal funds coming to the city. That could mean more funds funneled into "the variable" and kicked out to alleged undocumented "no-bid" contracts. The idea may ring of conspiracy theory, but it is not one that is convoluted or unbelievable.

Linked To Suspicions of Other City Corruption?

Former City Telecommunication Manager turned Whistle-blower and City Corruption Watchdog, John E. Foddrill,Sr. suspects the troubles go deeper than poor employees. The problems is multi-fold.

First, the equipment needs upgrading and expansion. Much of this was funded years ago through federal and state grants.

Operators need better supervision and training. Lives are at stake.

The fire responders and police state they need more people and more stations. Shorter response distances decrease response times.

And, as Foddrill alleges, there may be corruption getting in the way. It appears to tie into that city telephone account called "the variable".

When Foddrill uncovered the revolving half-million dollar account, he found as much as $5.2 a year funneled through the account to pay city phone bills that amounted to a much lower amount. The telecommunications hardware and software also fell, partially, under his purview as the City Telecommunications Manager.

Foddrill was threatened to stop his audits and ignore the fund other than to issue payments to the telephone service providers. He was eventually fired for doing his job and auditing the account. Then he was barred, by a restraining order, from setting foot on any city property. Then the police showed up at his home in the middle of the night for a "mental health check". The raid was reported as "unfounded" by the responding officers. Foddrill suspects Chief McManus initiated the raid as a form of intimidation and harassment for looking into "the variable" and possible links to poor 911 efficiency.

The 911 system falls under the purview of the Fire Chief, the Police Chief, and the city telecommunications manager.

In an open letter, John Foddrill cites several news media and other sources in an editorial that raises many yet unanswered questions:


San Antonio TX Firefighter’s Union President Steele declared on Sept 11, 2013 that the average response time in San Antonio TX is seven minutes forty-three seconds….almost eight minutes….. in a KSAT report “ Six Minutes to Live or Die ”.  On November 14, 2012 KSAT aired a report “KSAT Defenders investigation: 911 answering delays plague Bexar County” describing how at times 911 calls are not answered for up to ten minutes. A Mayo Clinic study shows that only a six minute window exists to save a life.

If first responders have only six minutes to save a life how does the fact that 911 calls are not even answered within ten minutes and the average response time is almost eight minutes not prove that citizens are dying due the failures of our public safety systems in San Antonio/Bexar County Texas?

The 911 failures, busy signals and delays are nothing new. A summary of news reports and internal documents shows that public safety systems have been failing in Bexar County/San Antonio TX for years.

A 2004 SA Current article describes how calls to 911 were met with a busy signal. A 2005 Crime Control and Prevention District meeting reveals that 23.6 % of 911 calls never get to a call-taker. A 2006 Express News article cites an internal City audit declaring that SAFD and SAPD ranked 1 and 2 on a scale of 1-5 scoring at the bottom of the system gauging the effectiveness and reliability of the 911 center. Media reports of E911/public safety system failures continued through 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 , 2012 and 2013.

No article exists detailing how in 2005/2006 the theft and misuse of tens of millions of dollars set aside by law for 911- telecommunications support was reported to the Office of Municipal Integrity, SAPD, the FBI, the Texas Rangers and City "leaders" as the scandal impacting the safety of citizens and first responders has been kept hidden. County Manager David Smith, County Dispatch Manager Robert Adelman, Union Presidents Steele/Helle and others provide interviews to KSAT and other media organizations lamenting about the failures BUT no one is willing to discuss the ongoing RICO-like criminal conspiracy to hide the theft/misuse of   tens of millions of dollars set aside for E911/telecommunications support. The media must take responsibility for their part in the “news blackout” as well. 

Efforts to gain assistance from local public safety unions have been rebuffed for years. Citizens received no reply to a recent certified letter mailed to all three unions . Local Police, Fire and Sheriff Deputy unions have been asked why for the past several years union leaders made very open complaints concerning public safety system failures BUT then refused to expose the core problems- public/police corruption and the massive theft/misuse of public/grant funds set aside by law to support 911 and telecommunications. Union officials have evidence proving that City IT Director Hugh Miller conspired with others to conceal the criminal activity and that Miller helped present false testimony to the Courts in an effort to defraud our judicial system and keep the crimes hidden. Union officials are aware that Miller was put in control of all public safety IT projects and budgets when former Asst. Police Department Director Gaffigan was demoted / allowed to resign for hiding the failures from Council/citizens. A man who lied to Council was replaced with a man who participated in a “fraud upon our Courts” and who allowed false statements to be presented to federal investigators – hl-10-0465 - to hide the theft/misuse of public/grant funds set aside for telecommunications/E911 support.  Do citizens and first responders have any hope of getting a true statement concerning the public safety system failures?  We think not.

On July 1, 2009 City Attorney Michael Bernard and Police Chief William McManus issued an illegal, unconstitutional criminal trespass warning barring entry into City Hall and public City Council meetings in an effort to keep the criminal activity hidden. On August 31, 2012 a second criminal trespass warning was issued when another law-abiding citizen asked too many questions. On March 27, 2013 United States District Judge Rodriguez lifted the illegal, unconstitutional bans imposed to silence whistle-blowers but the cover-up continues.

How many lives must be lost before somebody stands up and takes action to protect our first responders and citizens who have been kept in the dark for so many years believing the lies told by our City “leaders”?

Six Minutes Too High A Standard?

For those who have seen combat action in any of the wars our nation has fought since 1945, six minutes seems like an eternity. You are pinned down, outgunned, and need help. If told "we'll have air support on station in 6 minutes" can seem like a death sentence. Even indirect fires from canons or howitzers can take a minute to impact. You hunker down and pray, "dear lord in heaven bring the steel rain swiftly".

That is for soldiers who are trained and often already combat experienced. What about a regular citizen, though? How long should a mother, home alone, unarmed, hide in a closet with her daughter while home invaders break in, seeking to steal, rape, and kill both the mother and the young child?

Six minutes is the national standard. Even that can seem like an eternity. An armed intruder can enter a single-story house and clear it, shooting anything that moves, in three minutes or less.

Then we have response times in San Antonio. The city has had noted problems with response times for years. Currently, the average response time is just under eight (8) minutes, much improved from several years ago. However, that figure is calculated from the time the operator dispatches until the time the responders arrive. The real wait can be longer.

Sure, there can be issues with a panicked caller not able to verify the address and nature of the incident. Operators are trained to get that information. With modern technology, standard home phones self-identify the address to emergency operators. Many cell phones have Global Positioning System (GPS) functions that, even if disabled, will still give 911 operators the caller's general location. But Texas has problems with that data. Recent data indicates that the accuracy of GPS locational data for 911 calls in the state have fallen from a high of almost 70% accuracy in January 2011 to just over 30% accuracy in May of 2013.

What if the operators fail to verify address or locational data? What if the operators don't answer the phone? What if it takes the operator up to ten minutes to answer? That is simply unacceptable in true emergency conditions when seconds count.

If a major artery is severed, the injured person may have as little as 8 minutes before they "bleed out" or go into shock and die. Most people do not know how to apply a proper tourniquet or pressure bandage. Even if they do know, most don't have adequate materials on hand. Those 6 minute response times are vital to meet.

Fires can spread from a small, manageable flare-up to an uncontrollable blaze in three minutes.

More firemen, more stations, more police, more highly trained and responsible 911 operators, and city administrators who care enough to do their jobs seem to be the answer. But if the money earmarked for these, as Foddrill and others allege, is going into revolving accounts such as "the variable", the taxpayers are not getting what they already paid for.

If It's Broken, Call 311

311 is who you call if you need potholes repaired, trash picked up in a park, or to turn in your neighbor for having a garage sale without a permit. It's also who you call if the sewers are backing up, your block has a power outage, or you just have questions about city operations.

San Antonio's 311 system currently shows a greater than 90% response and answer rate. In the past year, the 311 system's worst performing month still reported an approximate 83% response and answer rate. That rivals the 911 emergency response system's reported statistics, where some neighborhoods report as low as a 20% response rate.

San Antonio openly publishes the successful statistics for their 311 system. However, in order to obtain 911 emergency response times, citizens have to file freedom of information (FOIA) requests to the city and justify the request. By the time the city responds to the request, the information and data may no longer be of value. 

Being a non-emergency service system, response times are not limited to that critical six minutes. However, these non-emergency service calls report fairly good response times. In it's poorest month, June 13, 311 reported response times of less than 70 minutes. October 13 averaged under 30 minutes for a response. When a 911 operator doesn't answer the phone for 10 minutes, puts you on hold for 10 minutes, then responders need 10 minutes to get to your location due to rush-hour traffic, 311 seems to promise a faster response.

If a 911 call fails to respond in a timely fashion, fails to meet that 6 minute standard, should citizens start calling 311 to report the broken system? With a 30 minute average response time and a 90% response and answer rate, that does appear to be a means to get the system fixed. That is most likely not the best option. Writing and calling your city council representative, your state representative, your state senator, and your federal congressman may be the better course of action.