Tucson will cut the number of furlough days for 911 operators and dispatchers, as well as "overhire" for open positions to help better staff its troubled 911 emergency call system.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to cut the furloughs for 911 operators - who take the initial calls - and public-safety dispatchers, who route the calls to first responders, from 50 hours to only 10 hours this year.
The city will hire more people than it has open positions, so the 911 center will be fully staffed as some of the new hires inevitably drop out or current employees leave.
That means hiring more than 12 new operators and dispatchers.
The new 911 emergency system, installed in late May, has been hit with technical malfunctions and dropped calls in its first several weeks of operation, and may have been a factor in the death of a 10-year-old girl.
The council talked in closed session about potential liability from the girl's death and spoke publicly about other issues with the 911 system.
Problems with the 911 system include screens that are supposed to show the address of incoming calls not working, a growing number of dropped calls and a reduced ability for supervisors to monitor calls for accuracy.
General Services Director Ron Lewis told the council that most of the problems occurred just after the new system was implemented.
"There was a problem" after the system was implemented, Lewis said. "No question."
He said there was difficulty in transferring calls and the automatic location of the caller not showing up for certain calls. The automatic location didn't pop up because some of the trunk lines in the system were not connected properly, he said. Lewis said this has now been corrected.
The calls reported dropped were not actually dropped, Lewis said. Instead there was only the perception the calls were dropped because the lights indicating the call was connected no longer worked the same way.
Therefore, the calls were only "perceived" to be dropped, when they were not, he said. "Qwest has been unable to document any 'truly' dropped call that wasn't the result of a hangup or operator error," he said.
At the same time, Lewis said it was nearly impossible to get numbers or statistics of dropped calls from the 911 system.
Lewis also responded to criticism over the dismantling of the old system before working out all the bugs on the new system. He said the old system wasn't supported by the vendor any more and the city was tapping into an existing system that was already used by the police.
The 911 staff was given two weeks of training on the new system, which both the city and the vendor Qwest felt was appropriate, Lewis said.
He criticized what he called the "media frenzy" about the 911 system and said the city is not trying to cover up problems. He said the system has improved and there is no threat to public safety. "It just gets better every day," he said.
Councilman Steve Kozachik criticized Lewis, saying dispatchers told him there were numerous dropped calls as recently as last weekend.
Councilwoman Shirley Scott put some of the blame on the state for seizing funding for cities to make upgrades to their 911 systems.
In other business, the council voted unanimously to void a lease with AT&T for a 68-foot cellphone tower to improve reception on Tucson's northeast side at East Tanque Verde and North Indian Ruins roads after hundreds of residents complained that they were never notified it was going in nearby.
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Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at 573-4346 or email@example.com