In the Spotlight

News & Features
Regional 9-1-1 Proves a Success
By Kathryn Herzog
February 9, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 28.8

Last December, when 9-1-1 operators received the call of a natural-gas explosion in St. Cloud, they immediately called the Gold Cross ambulance dispatch - in Rochester.

LATE LAST YEAR, AMBULANCE dispatch services in St. Cloud were closed and operators at the Mayo Emergency Communications Center, which owns Gold Cross, took over. The push to integrate the state's emergency services has gained momentum over the past few years as companies try to consolidate resources and equipment.

Four people were killed and 13 injured in the natural-gas explosion which rocked downtown St. Cloud on December 11. witnesses at the scene say those numbers would've been higher if firefighters and paramedics hadn't reached victims as quickly as they did.

One woman was seriously injured when her office building was destroyed and she became trapped behind her desk among the rubble.

St. Cloud Fire Chief Mike Holman says he was impressed by the efficient and organized response of emergency workers to help the woman in what could've been a chaotic environment.

Holman: I look back and we called them one minute into the incident. The call from our fire department went to Gold Cross and they were on scene very shortly after that, but I know they were there in time to take our firefighter to the hospital and by the time we had the victims out they were there.
Holman has been with the St. Cloud Fire Department for 27 years. He's witnessed the consolidation of fire departments and dispatch services throughout his career. Firefighters work closely with paramedics at an accident scene, and Holman says he's had reservations about the loss of local control. But it's the service that matters, he says, and so far he has no complaints.
Holman: You know it was really nice to know, before it was even Gold Cross, when you had a local owner of an ambulance service, we knew a lot of people and it was "call down the street", and those things. But those times have changed. It's all going to depend on the type of service that Gold Cross can continue to give this community.
The Mayo Emergency Communication Center in Rochester now handles ambulance dispatch service for 13 communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. St. Cloud was added to their response list shortly before the explosion. It was the first real test of the new integrated system for St. Cloud.

36 people work at the Mayo Center in Rochester and dispatch operators work around the clock. Nine dispatchers were on duty at the time of the explosion. Three worked solely on directing ground and air support in St. Cloud.

Terry McJoynt manages the Rochester dispatch facility. She says the first real test of handling a disaster in St. Cloud from 150 miles away passed with flying colors.

McJoynt: It's by radio so it's a seamless process. There are no time delays. When the call came in we immediately radioed to the field staff and immediately dispatched the resources we had available.
Nine Gold Cross ambulances were dispatched to the explosion scene and transported five injured people to the hospital in St. Cloud. The Gold Cross dispatchers work with emergency response crews in each city they serve.

McJoynt says dispatchers receive rigorous map training and have studied the St Cloud area. But she says once dispatchers give the local crew an address, they generally know how to find it. McJoynt says the caller won't even be able to tell the difference.

McJoynt: Because we've proven that it works, I mean there are no delays and the quality of the service is there. I think when people dial 9-1-1, they want an ambulance, I don't think they care who actually is sending it, as long as they get their needs met.
Emergency Communication Centers like Mayo's are becoming more common nationwide. Private ambulance service corporations like Gold Cross are consolidating their resources and equipment, while upgrading their technology in an effort to provide better service.

Tom Fennell is a Gold Cross manager in St. Cloud.

Fennell: The cost is becoming prohibitive for services similar to ours to maintain an individual center. It's more cost effective, more time-management effective to have one center do the work of all, instead of individual centers throughout the corporation.

Fennell says he, too, had his reservations about losing local-dispatch service, but after witnessing the new integrated system in action he says there's really no difference and in the end St. Cloud will only benefit.

In the future, Fennell says dispatch operators will be able to offer callers more information before help arrives. And soon Mayo's center will use new software to track ambulances on a computer screen as they head towards an accident scene.

Kathryn Herzog covers the St. Cloud area for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at .