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Forward Through Ferguson report highlights St. Louis region’s 'fragmented' 911 system

St. Louis County Police 911 dispatchers will soon be recognized as first responders alongside the paramedics and other emergency workers under a new county law.
St. Louis County Police Department
St. Louis County Police 911 dispatchers will soon be recognized as first responders alongside paramedics and other emergency workers, under a new county law.

The St. Louis region will have to work together to implement universal change if it wants to improve public safety and the 911 system.

That’s according to a new report by Forward Through Ferguson that examines 911 systems and reimagines how the region uses public safety. The report, released Wednesday, laid out several key findings, including that an “inefficient” and “fragmented” 911 system relies on outdated technology and has inconsistent response times.

“When a ride-sharing app can deliver food faster than our public safety system can respond to someone who is in need of help, who might be bleeding out from a wound, or might be needing urgent mental health support, that is a major problem,” said Jia Lian Yang, director of storytelling and communications at the nonprofit.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio last July, Karishma Furtado, senior director of data and research at the nonprofit, pointed to a fragmented system in St. Louis County. The county has nearly 90 municipalities, 53 police departments and 15 public safety access points, resulting in inconsistent protocols, codes and training.

“Many of us have experienced calling [911] and being put on hold or never getting through to it to begin with,” Furtado said. “That is something that people hold in their minds when thinking about what the options are in front of them at that moment.”

The report also found that the bulk of 911 calls made in the county were for nonmajor crimes. Between 2015 and 2020, nearly 80% of 911 calls were for non major crimes, while only 5% of calls were for violent crime. The problem also lies with the outdated 911 technology used throughout the St. Louis region, which was made for landlines and not cellular or Wi-Fi devices.

“We’re still trying to make a system that was built in a time of landlines work when we’re a population of cellphone and wireless users,” said Furtado. “That has very real implications for how quickly and accurately we can get resources to folks when they are in need and in crisis.”

The most up-to-date technology, Next Generation 911, is designed for cellular devices. St. Louis County’s Emergency Communication Commission has nearly finished implementing it. St. Louis has made no decision on whether to adopt the system.

Forward Through Ferguson worked with national criminal justice experts, statewide 911 administrators, dispatchers and elected officials to come up with a list of recommendations to improve public safety in the region.

They’re calling for 911 to no longer be located within police departments and for call centers to be combined. The recommendations include updating technology, improving the 911 call experience and process, providing consistent training practices throughout departments regionwide and implementing first responder programs.

“We want to reimagine public safety and advocate for non-police civilian first responder programs,” Yang said. “These are effective programs that are cost saving and meet the needs of residents from across the country.”

Forward Through Ferguson has already begun to have those conversations in community meetings.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.