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St. Louis plans to combine 911 centers to overcome dispatching problems

Officials plan to put all of St. Louis’ separate 911 centers for fire, EMS and police into one location, on one system


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By Austin Huguelet
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — A man who struggled for more than an hour to summon emergency services for a dying woman in the Grove this weekend pleaded Monday for something to be done about the city’s long-struggling 911 system.

Sebastian Montes, owner of Mexican restaurant La Calle, said he and others called 911 dozens of times after a tree fell on the woman’s car during the storms Saturday afternoon. He held out hope for an answer as he stood by the woman, unconscious but breathing, telling her that help was coming. But he never got anyone on the phone.

“We need to change something about that,” he said. “That should not be happening.”

Montes’ account marked the latest addition to a long series of complaints about the city’s emergency dispatch system. For years, departing dispatchers and media reports have been raising the alarm about a balkanized, understaffed operation. City officials, including Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, have offered pay raises, made administrative changes and announced plans to reshape the system as a whole. But police department data show service has remained well below national standards, and Saturday’s incident thrust the issue back into the spotlight.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office referred questions about Saturday’s incident and reform efforts to the city’s Department of Public Safety. Department spokesman Monte Chambers wrote in an email that the department is still investigating the incident in the Grove, but noted that dispatch was inundated with phone traffic Saturday afternoon. From 3 p.m.-5 p.m., he said, it received 1,076 phone communications, or about 9 calls per minute.

Chambers also pointed out that the Jones administration has made progress with increasing some dispatchers’ pay and gathering money for a new dispatch center.

“As City leaders have emphasized, optimizing our 911 system will take both time and hard work,” he said.

Aldermen in charge of the board’s budget and public safety committees said they’re planning hearings to see what they can do, though it could take a while.

“We’re going to be moving expediently,” said Alderman Bret Narayan, the public safety committee chair. “But there’s lots of people we’ll need to talk to in order to have effective conversations on this.”

Alderman Michael Browning, whose ward covers the Grove, said he hoped that the across-the-board raises for city employees that the board approved Friday would help bolster hiring and retention in the short-staffed dispatcher corps.

“But we know there’s more work to do,” he said. “People deserve to know that 911 is a dependable way to get help.”

The city has struggled to maintain that confidence for years. National standards say 90% of all calls should be answered in 10 seconds or less. But in 2018, just 80% of calls coming into the St. Louis police department’s 911 dispatch center met the standard. In 2019, 70% did. And in 2020, the figure dropped to 64%.

The decline tracked with an increasing number of vacancies among dispatchers, some of whom complained to the Post-Dispatch of low pay, long hours and a lack of appreciation from city leadership.

In February 2021, officials under Mayor Lyda Krewson increased starting salaries to $38,000 from $31,000. They also introduced some administrative fixes, like giving calls to 911 priority over calls to the police non-emergency line. Previously, all calls had gone into the same queue.

A few months later, the newly elected Jones announced plans to tackle a larger structural problem: the separate 911 centers for police and for St. Louis fire and emergency medical services.

Officials explained that for years, all 911 calls had come to police, requiring an extra step when callers needed fire or EMS services.

They said that within two months, everyone would start working together under the same roof. And in time, they said, dispatchers would all use the same system.

“St. Louis deserves an emergency response system that functions,” Jones said then.

Dan Isom, who served as interim public safety director until his resignation earlier this year, also talked about building a new, multimillion-dollar 911 center for the combined dispatcher corps and further increasing pay.

More than a year later, the city has raised some salaries and set aside nearly three-quarters of the money officials estimate they will need to build the center.

But police and fire dispatchers aren’t even under the same roof. Records on how quickly calls are answered showed little improvement through February, the most recent month for which data was available. And staffing woes remain unabated: A third of police dispatcher positions were vacant as of this spring. About half of EMS positions were, too.

Montes, the restaurant owner, wasn’t even surprised when he started calling 911 after he learned about the tree falling and no one picked up.

It only got harder to believe as his staff started calling, and then other people in the area started calling, and then people he reached out to on social media were calling, to no avail.

“It was ring, ring, ring, and then nothing,” he said.

Standing in the rain next to the car with the woman lying there, unconscious but breathing, with another woman beside him praying for divine aid, he didn’t know what else to do.

“You feel hopeless,” he said.

Eventually, a nearby neighbor called someone they knew at a fire service in St. Louis County and his landlord made his way to the nearest firehouse, and shortly after that, more than a dozen city firefighters showed up.

But it wasn’t long before someone pronounced the woman, identified by authorities Monday as 33-year-old Katherine Coen, dead at the scene.

Montes went back to his restaurant and closed down. He tried to go home and shake everything off, but he couldn’t. So he went to a bar instead, thinking he needed a drink.

He talked to the woman who had been praying for Coen earlier there, and burst into tears right there at the bar.

“It’s a bad feeling,” he said. “It’s horrible.”

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