In a move to keep emergency dispatchers from doubling as switchboard operators, an electronic message will answer calls to the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department's main number starting Monday, a number that was answered by a live voice.
Augusta-Richmond County 911 Center Director Phil Wasson installed the auto attendant system on a trial basis through county telephone contractor KMC Telecom. If it works out, the number once considered the main line to the Richmond County Sheriff's Office will get the same treatment within a few months, Mr. Wasson said.
Neither of the numbers - 821-2900 for fire, 821-1080 for police - have gone to their respective administrative departments for some time. They went to the 911 center on Fourth Street well before a vote by the Augusta Commission made emergency dispatch an independent entity in March 2000.
An automated system would be rare for a Georgia jurisdiction outside the metropolitan Atlanta area. The Aiken County Sheriff's Office has a recording on one of its main lines.
Mr. Wasson said Richmond County's system will cost less than $500 per year. He said he wants to iron out any glitches before applying it to the sheriff's office number, which receives the brunt of non-emergency calls. In 2000, law enforcement calls outnumbered fire calls nearly 45 to 1, according to a study by the center.
"If the fire chief or the sheriff feels this has in any way compromised someone's life, we'll turn it off," Mr. Wasson said. "We can turn it off as easily as we can turn it on."
Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he doesn't want to take that chance. The idea of a machine picking up the police line already has him concerned. Because the 1080 number is constantly monitored by those who can best summon deputies, investigators routinely place it on wanted posters and give it to media to attract tipsters in ongoing cases.
The sheriff said he doesn't want anyone calling the department, for any matter, and reaching a recording. He fears the run-around could cause the caller to hang up in frustration.
"If someone calls public safety, they should talk to someone, not a machine," Sheriff Strength said. "There are just too many chances for problems, and we don't need that."
Between seven and 10 dispatchers work the 911 center during various shifts. They spend too much time bogged down with inane and misdirected calls, Mr. Wasson said. Of the 950,000 calls that came through the administrative lines in 2000, about 35 percent had to be rerouted to other departments, he said.
Telephone and radio calls per day increased by 23 percent from 1999 to 2000. The center handled 2.5 million communications last year. Mr. Wasson will ask the Augusta Commission for four more dispatchers, one per shift, at a meeting Tuesday.
When their calls are screened by the automated system, a female voice announces, "You have reached the Augusta-Richmond County Communication Center. If this is an emergency, press 1." This option sends the caller straight to a dispatcher.
Otherwise, the voice continues with a menu of options that can lead a caller in a variety of directions, including to the criminal investigation division, the District Attorney's Office, the Richmond County Board of Education and Animal Control, among others.
When asked about the issue of wanted posters and media use of the 821-1080 number, Mr. Wasson phoned the county's information technologies administrator and asked that an option for tipsters be added to the main menu, one that would also route the caller directly to a dispatcher.
Mr. Wasson said the decision to keep or ditch the system will be based on feedback from residents and the fire department. Interim Fire Chief Carl Scott said last week he does not have any immediate objections to the plan.
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.
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