“Denigrated” Contractor Threatens to Pull Plug on 911 at L.A. Fire Dept.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A contractor whose product has been prominent in long-standing complaints about the Los Angeles Fire Department’s (LAFD) 911 service, responded to news the city would begin planning for a switch to another system by giving 60 days notice he was going to cut the city off.

The LAFD was not pleased at the thought of its 911 dispatchers without access to the computer system that guides them through an emergency call. Medical Director Marc Eckstein, a doctor, told the Los Angeles Times, “To even threaten [a cutoff] is beyond irresponsible.”

Jeff Clawson, a doctor and medical director of the nonprofit Priority Dispatch Corporation, sent a letter to the department dated March 3 that accuses it of “untruthful” statements that “factually misrepresent” the computerized scripts developed by his company. The Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) is also known as the Clawson protocols, and the language in the doctor’s letter reflects a deep attachment to them:

“Priority Dispatch can no longer stand idly by while its product brand is being denigrated with false and misleading statements by LAFD management officials and individual dispatchers.”

The problem, he argued, is not the scripts, which provide a framework and specific questions for 911 dispatchers trying to assess an emergency phone call in real time. It’s the knuckleheads at LAFD:

“Recent public statements by the LAFD Medical Director, the Interim Fire Chief and individual members of the Department clearly indicate that the protocols are being incorrectly blamed for dispatch made by firefighter/call takers who are not complying with the MPDS protocols.”

The department thinks otherwise. It announced earlier in the month that it was overhauling its 911 procedures and ditching the process that has dispatchers reading through a complicated list of questions with multiple complex question branches, which can take a lot of time and frustrate callers. “We ask a lot of questions that end up going nowhere, providing us with nothing and really upsetting people and delaying a response,” LAFD dispatcher Robert Ashley told the Times.

The protocol uses 30 different categories for identifying stroke, an element of the system that got poor marks from researchers in 2008. The study found that dispatchers recognized stroke less than half the time using the protocol, a result it called “suboptimal.” In response to a letter of protest from Dr. Clawson, the researchers cited two other studies that validated their findings.

Despite their findings, the researchers lauded the MPDS as “an advanced and sophisticated system that plays a critical role in dispatch worldwide.”    

Although the department was adamant that it ultimately viewed the system as deeply flawed, what the department had in mind was an orderly transition to a new system after a period of development, testing and training. They are aiming for a system with fewer questions and more dispatcher flexibility in executing it.

Clawson said in his letter the department has been in such blatant violation of its contract that he could legitimately cancel immediately and pull MPDS out now.

But he won’t, although he is not fond of having his product associated with a department that “creates a threat to the health, safety and welfare of every man, woman and child in the City.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Contractor Threatens to Cut Off Program Used for LAFD's 911 Calls (by Ben Welsh and Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times)

Letter to LAFD from Contractor (by Medical Director Jeff Clawson, Priority Dispatch Corporation)

Analysis of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Response Times (Los Angeles City Controller) (pdf)

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