Clay commissioners question 911 response times in rural parts of county

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Are 911 calls answered as quickly as they should be in smaller cities and rural areas in Clay County? The county commission raised residents’ concerns Tuesday to Mary Phillippi, director of the Red River Dispatch Center, at their weekly meeting.

Commissioners Jenny Mongeau, Kevin Campbell and David Ebinger told the director of the joint communications center – which handles emergency calls from all of Clay and Cass counties – that they hear persistent reports from rural residents that the response to their calls is slower than they expect.

“We’ve heard occasional complaints from rural mayors that response time is inadequate for public safety,” Ebinger told her. He added that as a retired long-time police officer, he recognizes that the majority of people who make those calls are under stress. “They may have expectations that it will go like it does on TV,” he conceded.

Phillippi, who has worked at the joint communications center since its inception in 2002, noted that all call answering and dispatching is recorded. She said that every complaint is investigated, but added, “If there are many of these complaints, we’re not hearing about them.” She also noted that first responders in the rural areas are primarily volunteers, requiring more time to notify and travel.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Clay and Cass sheriffs departments, along with the Moorhead and Fargo police, organized the joint center to take field all 911 callers, rather than having them divided up between their jurisdictions. West Fargo joined six years later. The center, the director told the commission, is the first and only one in the nation that crosses state boundaries. Its staff of up to 41 operators handled more than 100,000 emergency calls in 2020, along with another 165,000 that were administrative in nature. Since Minnesota instituted its text-to-911 service in 2018, they have also handled those message, a total of just 180 in 2020.

The switch from landline phone numbers to cell phones, Phillippi pointed out, has also complicated responses. Calls from landlines are easily located; not so, for cellphones, which make up the 85% of current call volume.

The center, located at 300 NP Avenue in Fargo, is equipped with eight communication consoles and staffed by nine people per shift. Each RRDC dispatcher handles about 800 calls a day. The staff is currently well below its authorized strength of 41 people. Recruitment, Phillippi said, is a challenge: “It’s very difficult to recruit for a high-stress job that requires 24/7 commitment.” Yet the local annual turnover of 12% is a fraction of the national average of 28% each year.

Clay County pays 10% of the dispatch center’s $4.7 million budget and the city of Moorhead covers another 18%. The balance, 72%, is funded by Cass County on behalf of Fargo, West Fargo and its own coverage.

Campbell said that responding to communication issues in rural areas is critical, whether real or perceived: “Sometimes it may be a matter of perception. Sometimes it’s real.”

Ebinger concurred. “We need to make sure every concern about the communications flow between residents, first responders and public officials is investigated and resolved.”

Mongeau, herself a rural resident, added, “I do hear growing concerns about delays after calling 911. I know you’re facing a workforce shortage. I would support whatever it takes to staff your operation adequately.”

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