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911 center report demands answers

Post by Kim Bradford on Jan. 21, 2010 at 6:49 pm with No Comments »
January 24, 2010 5:01 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Pierce County’s 911 officials say performance audit, Pierce County’s audit staff say performance review.

We say, who cares? While professionals argue over terms of art, 911 callers are still waiting on the line longer than they should be.
The months-long dustup between the Law Enforcement Support Agency and Pierce County’s performance audit office is long on semantics and acrimony – and largely beside the point.

The two offices are arguing over a 2009 report commissioned by LESA. The 234-page report was prompted in part by the agency’s dismal service record: In 2005, it answered just 74 percent of 911 calls in 10 seconds. The industry standard is 90 percent.

LESA hired a consultant to tell it how it could do better. The consultant concluded that LESA was understaffed and that the county’s scattered 911 system was partly to blame.

As it is, emergency calls go to any one of five primary call centers in the county. LESA, which handles police calls from about 90 percent of the county, is the largest. But it doesn’t handle fire and emergency medical dispatching. Those calls are transferred to “secondary” centers, such as fire departments.

The consultant suggested that the current setup costs taxpayers a lot more than it would if LESA dispatched all calls. The suggestion amounted to an indictment of the current 911 system. If true, public agencies were wasting money on perpetuating local fiefdoms.

Concerns about the report prompted LESA’s two biggest users – Tacoma and Pierce County – to take a closer look. What they found was this “performance audit” was no audit by government accounting standards. It was, at best, a “performance review.”

That matters, and it doesn’t. The government accounting practices – called “yellow-book standards” – do ensure a certain level of reliability. But an assessment doesn’t have to follow government auditing practices to draw the right conclusions.

The most important question is not what to call the LESA report, but whether to trust it. If it is trustworthy, then public agencies have an obligation to respond to its findings and consider its recommendations.

The county’s auditors did find a few holes in the data used by the consultant, but nothing that disproves its conclusions. Having established that the report was not a yellow-book audit and that some of its numbers may be off, the county has apparently concluded its review.

That’s not good enough. The LESA study raises serious concerns about needless duplication of overhead costs – duplication that may be preventing people in distress from getting help quickly and taxpayers from getting the most bang for their buck.

City and county officials kid themselves if they think those concerns will die of flesh wounds. They should either finish the job by proving that 911 dollars are now being spent efficiently, or start acting.

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