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Portsmouth 911 center to get technology upgrade

The work should be completed within four to nine months. Until it's is complete, if you have a general, non-emergency question for the city, dial 311.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Portsmouth is upgrading its 911 center and it’s something administrators and citizens say is needed.

Both on social media and at city council meetings, people have complained that no one is answering their calls. However, that should change in the coming months.

That upgrade, which should change all that, will take four to nine months.

It really will be an overhaul of the current technology, with things like increasing incoming call capacity, live transcription of calls, mapping intelligence and an automated call-back system if a caller hangs up.

But for some folks, questions linger about what to do in the meantime.

It’s something people in Portsmouth want to see fixed.

"I’ve dialed 911 15 times this year and it took an hour and a half for police to get there," said one resident at a meeting Thursday night.

The discussion over the 911 center started again when Councilman Mark Hugel stated it was taking, on average, 20 minutes from when a dispatcher takes a call to when they send police to respond.

However, he said taking that data at face value can be misleading because violent crimes are being responded to at a much faster rate.

"The 911 dispatchers actually triage based on the priority of the phone call, so violent crime at the top of the list, the cat stuck in the tree at the bottom of the list," Hugel said.

As for why people sometimes experience long wait times for dispatchers to take their call, the dispatch center took 81,000 calls for emergencies last year.

On top of that, they took 77,000 calls for non-emergencies, like asking how to pay their water bill or looking for court times.

"Why does someone dial 911 to find out when court starts?" one resident asked.

Interim City Manager Mimi Terry and 911 Administrator Paula Garner say until the new system is implemented and with currently only 16 lines available, people need to call 311, the non-emergency line, instead.

One citizen raised concerns that people don’t know about that number. Terry did not answer that question, but the number is displayed on the city’s website.

Once the new system in installed, Garner said there will be alternative ways to get in touch with dispatchers.

Hugel said the other part of the upgrade is increasing call capacity, which he said should solve a lot of the problems citizens are seeing.

"Hopefully those two things working together will mean there are fewer cases where somebody’s waiting on the line while the cat in the tree call is being reported," he said.

Garner assured the crowd they are staffed to handle the call volume and they’re continuing to increase staff.

Until that upgrade is complete, if you have a general, non-emergency question for the city, dial 311.

If you can’t get through to 911 for an emergency, text them and a dispatcher will see it.

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