Sarpy County is Nebraska’s fastest-growing county, home to major employers like PayPal and Yahoo, as well as regional retail like Shadow Lake Towne Center and homes in nearly every direction.
It has its own top-flight medical facilities and attractions, and it has public services at least on par with its bigger neighbors.
Except in emergency dispatch, a shortcoming the Sarpy County Board is right to examine and address.
A World-Herald analysis by Cody Winchester and Roseann Moring found that Sarpy County residents who call 911 can wait more than a minute longer than Douglas County residents to have their emergency calls dispatched to local first responders.
Roughly 80 percent of Sarpy County 911 calls reporting fires or a need for medical help took longer than a minute to dispatch from 2008 to 2012. Only 3 percent of such calls took longer than a minute in neighboring Douglas County, the analysis found.
One can quibble with the national standard for dispatching calls within one minute set by the National Fire Protection Association, but not with why it pushes for fast action. Particularly for medical and fire calls, seconds can save lives.
As Bellevue Fire Chief Perry Guido said, a slow dispatch “could mean the difference between losing the house and making a successful stop.”
The good news is that the manager of 911 dispatch in Sarpy County long ago identified this problem. Larry Lavelle has gone to his county board every year since 2008 with what now seems a reasonable request for four new dispatchers to join the 32 he already has.
He’s not asking to match Douglas County’s effort to use operators to screen calls and route them promptly to the correct police or fire dispatcher. The union that represents his dispatchers says he’d need eight new dispatchers to do that. He just wants to ease the workloads of already-stretched employees.
And he’s right.
The county has not added dispatchers since 1999. Census data show that Sarpy County over that span has grown by more than 25 percent, up by more than the 24,000 people living in Norfolk or Hastings. (The 911 center in Norfolk, incidentally, employs 11 dispatchers and a supervisor.)
It is understandable that Sarpy officials would like to see progress toward a multi-county effort to house a single, unified, metropolitan 911 dispatch center in one location with high-quality dispatchers. That could be an effective, efficient, eventual course.
The Sarpy County 911 center also is looking at standardizing the computer interface for dispatchers and mining call data for trends. And the center is working with local fire chiefs to bring in automatic fire alert systems to fire stations.
The county board is right to look at ways to maximize bang for taxpayer buck, including bringing in a consultant and holding more regular talks with various departments about ways they can improve the service of dispatchers. It is good to hear that this issue has the board’s attention and members are open to addressing the need.
Fire and medical calls in Sarpy County are up 16 percent since 2008. It is reasonable to examine whether public services in a growing county should grow to meet that need.