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Callers find it is taking longer to get emergency services in Portland, Ore.


It is taking longer to get through to 911 in Portland, Ore. The wait time increased after the city adopted new dispatch software. Here's Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: On an unusually slow day at Portland's 911 call center, Kristina Gore takes a call from a woman in respiratory distress.

KRISTINA GORE: Hold on with me. I'm just going to have some questions for you. Are you there by yourself?

LEVINSON: After 40 seconds taking the caller's basic information, a screen pops up prompting additional questions.

GORE: Are you clammy or having cold sweats?

LEVINSON: One minute and 45 seconds elapses before an ambulance is sent to the woman's house.

GORE: That was a super typical, run-of-the-mill ProQA call.

LEVINSON: ProQA is software that prompts a series of standardized questions, where each answer determines the next step in the dispatching process. Those questions are supposed to help a dispatcher determine how urgent a call is and how to respond. Last year, after Portland transitioned to the new software to triage medical and fire calls, hold times surged. In the month after ProQA launched in Portland, the number of people who waited five minutes or more for a 911 dispatcher to answer their call shot up almost 500% compared to the month before. And nine months in, those numbers have increased even more before.

BOB COZZIE: Before ProQA, they would just be responding with lights and sirens on everything.

LEVINSON: Bob Cozzie is director of Portland's Bureau of Emergency Communications.

COZZIE: What ProQA does is helps us define exactly what type of response needs to go to a particular call type.

LEVINSON: Cozzie says the delays are due to a massive increase in call volume and short-staffing.

COZZIE: For us to have been able to meet that challenge, we would have had to see that call volume coming about two years earlier because of how long it takes our trainees to get through the process.

LEVINSON: But dispatchers say the regimented questions make each call last a little longer, and that extra time adds up. One dispatcher wrote anonymously to an elected official, quote, "what is really happening is not shown or spoken of. Instead, some skewed numbers about staffing and call times are thrown out. And all of us here actually working the floor gasp every time," end quote. Dispatchers wrote they were ignored after they pleaded with management not to implement the protocols over the summer, when call volume typically spikes.

It's not just Portland having issues.

BARBARA HUBER: Yes, we are using it.

LEVINSON: Barbara Huber is the fire chief in Pueblo, Colo., and she says their times increased by about a minute and a half after adopting ProQA.

HUBER: We're trying to find ways of expediting that dispatch time.

LEVINSON: Pueblo and Portland are among the 3,700 911 agencies using ProQA, according to Priority Dispatch, the company that sells the software. The parent company was sued in 2019 after dispatchers in Salt Lake City failed to send help to an assault in progress. And in Pennsylvania that same year, dispatchers told local media the software was going to get someone killed. Minneapolis abandoned the system in 2019, citing slower call times. The problems are so common, Priority Dispatch has an entire webpage devoted to debunking what the company calls myths about the system.

Priority Dispatch president Brian Dale explains the problem this way.

BRIAN DALE: When agencies first implement, there is usually a slight delay until the dispatchers feel more and more comfortable working with the system and working with the software.

LEVINSON: ProQA was created by Dr. Jeffrey Clawson. He's also the founder of the International Academy of Emergency Dispatch, the agency that sets national standards and accredits 911 agencies. To get accredited, agencies have to use ProQA. Dale downplays the conflict of interest.

DALE: I think that the academy and Priority Dispatch both have done a lot of good in the communities that we work in.

LEVINSON: In Portland, ProQA is still being used for fire and medical calls, but city officials' enthusiasm for the protocols may be waning. They confirmed to Oregon Public Broadcasting that plans to expand ProQA to police calls are on hold indefinitely.

For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Levinson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS MACRAE'S "SOLSTICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.