The 911 dispatch center in San Francisco is implementing technology to better track ambulances sent out on emergency calls. (Cindy Chew/2010 S.F. Examiner)

SF rolling out technology to better track ambulances

With a skyrocketing number of calls coming into the short-staffed 911 dispatch center in San Francisco, emergency officials are testing new technology that will do the leg-work for dispatchers when it comes to tracking ambulances.

The goal is to improve ambulance response times while alleviating the strain on dispatchers, who are struggling to meet the national standard for answering emergency calls because of staffing shortages and increased call volumes.

A massive power outage in San Francisco last month brought the staffing woes into the limelight because the Department of Emergency Management had too few dispatchers on duty to answer the surge of 911 calls in time, let alone meet the national standard on an average day.

Burt Wilson, president of the dispatchers union, said in a phone call Wednesday that dispatchers currently use a radio to keep track of ambulances stationed at specific points around San Francisco.

“The dispatcher has to pretty much know where all of the ambulances are at and figure out which ones are the best to send as quick as possible,” Wilson said.

The new system, called the Mobile Area Routing and Vehicle Location Information System, or MARVLIS, uses GPS to track ambulances and suggest one closest to an incident.

“It will definitely help the dispatcher that is not very familiar with San Francisco, and there’s a few of them that are,” Wilson said.

Rob Smuts, deputy director of emergency communications for DEM, said Wednesday at the Fire Commission meeting that the department is “about ready” to roll out the system.

The new system comes as the department plans to hire more dispatchers.

Smuts said the department had a class of 40 dispatchers this year and is asking to budget for a class of 45 next fiscal year, though about a third of the trainees typically drop out.

The department is trying to meet the national standard for answering 90 percent of emergency calls within 10 seconds. Smuts said dispatchers have answered between 79 and 80 percent of calls within that time over the last couple weeks.

According to Smuts, the department needs 145 dispatchers to meet the national standard, but dispatchers will still have to work mandatory overtime. He expects to have enough by the end of 2017.

“The schedules are pretty brutal,” Smuts said. “It can be seven or eight years before you are senior enough to have a shift that has even one of the regular weekend days off.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Ed Lee issued an executive order to address the staffing issues in the department, which he said would be solved within two months.

“The mayor expects DEM to do everything in its power to meet the national standard as quickly as possible,” his spokesperson, Deirdre Hussey, said in a text message Wednesday.

Smuts said the department will not have 163 dispatchers, the amount needed to meet the standard without overtime, until the close of 2018.

The new MARVLIS system for ambulances will cost the department $116,831 to implement, according to DEM spokesperson Francis Zamora.

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