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What happens when someone in St. Paul calls 911?

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Monitors on a wall.
A monitor shows the number of active calls at the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center in St. Paul on Oct. 21, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Every time Ramsey County dispatch telecommunicator Amber Guettler answers a 911 call, she expects to hear about a crisis, the voices high with emotion. From that difficult call, Guettler has to get as much information as possible.

“It typically is very calm in here. It’s very important for us just for working here, and keeping ourselves calm,” Guettler said. “But it’s very important for us to stay calm for our callers as well.”

What the callers don’t know is how quickly police will arrive. As shootings hit historically high levels, the St. Paul Police Department is concerned about how gun violence is straining police resources.

The city had its 30th homicide of the year this week, the highest number in at least 20 years.

Inside the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center, Guettler is one of more than 100 telecommunicators, dispatchers and supervisors working in shifts. A computer system sorts calls into geographical sectors assigned to various dispatchers.

The computers do most of the communicating between staff so they can focus on callers. They sit side by side in a carpeted and warmly lit room. Monitors hanging in the front of the room show the number of active calls. A red desk light indicates a dispatcher is on the phone.

Guettler takes the initial 911 calls on her head set, types in basic information and sends the calls to the appropriate 911 dispatcher — it’s called dropping a call.

A woman wearing a headset types at a desk with three monitors.
Telecommunicator Amber Guettler logs in information from a caller at the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

They’re not just serving St. Paul.

Staff handle nearly 1 million calls a year, including nonemergencies, for various police and fire departments across the county, said Scott Williams, director of emergency communications for Ramsey County.

The dispatchers prioritize the calls and communicate with officers in their squad cars either over the scanner or through an electronic list that updates in real time on laptops inside of the squad cars.

Calls across Ramsey County are assigned one of five categories by the time dispatchers pass them along to officers. 

The lower priority calls, for example a theft with no suspect, can take up to 75 minutes for an officer to respond, according to department protocol. The highest level, Priority 1, is reserved for the most serious circumstances such as the shooting of an officer that would require all hands on deck.

A computer monitor shows a list of calls and information.
Calls and incidents in Ramsey County are logged in a computer-aided dispatch system in the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Priority 2 calls require immediate dispatch within 30 seconds — they’re serious crimes in progress like domestic violence or a traffic crash with injuries.

It’s these calls that concern St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell. He said officers in his department aren’t able to respond within the appropriate time frame of 30 seconds on average 14 times a day. And he said it’s taking too long by department standards about 45 times a day for his officers to respond to all types of calls to police.

Dispatchers can pull officers from a less serious call to respond to a Priority 2 call that warrants an immediate police response.

Axtell recently told MPR News he’s concerned about the level of gun violence in the city — he said it's the worst it’s been since the mid-1990s. It makes him concerned about the health and well-being of his officers, he said.

“The resources of the department are incredibly strained right now, the detectives and officers that respond to these calls,” Axtell said.

He’s preparing a report for the City Council outlining staffing needs as the council works on a budget for next year.

Mayor Melvin Carter continues to hold public safety meetings in November. One is scheduled for Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Rice Recreation Center. The last is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 16, at 1 p.m. at Arlington Hills Community Center.