The Anchorage Fire Department is changing the way it responds to emergencies.

In early April, 911 dispatchers launched a new computer program which AFD Chief Jodie Hettrick said is already a big improvement over the former system.

In the past, Hettrick said, dispatchers used a series of scripted questions to determine the nature of the emergency and how much equipment to respond with. She said the process was slow and often led to responses that were overkill for routine calls.

"It meant that our dispatchers had to ask required questions and they couldn't dispatch units or send out response until those questions were asked. And it also recommended a more significant response than we really knew needed to happen. And that's a waste of resources," Hettrick said.

Dispatcher Stephanie Dufek wrote the new 9-1-1 system

Hettrick said she was thrilled when a newly hired dispatcher, Stephanie Dufek, asked if the department would be open to changing the dispatch system. Dufek volunteered to help rewrite the software program that would need to be integrated with AFD's emergency system.

That was three years ago, and dispatchers are now using the new program.

Dufek said 911 operators' interactions with callers are more conversational. She said dispatchers ask fewer questions and get emergency equipment out the door much faster.

"So a simple example is someone reporting their neighbor burning trash in the backyard. It would take about three minutes for us to process the call for something so benign," Dufek said. "Now you are talking 30 seconds and probably 10 seconds and we are sending somebody out the door as long as it's straightforward."

Hettrick said the new system is expected to save the department money, on both fuel costs and wear and tear of vehicles. She said there's also a public safety issue to consider: Fewer emergency vehicles on the streets could lead to fewer crashes.

"When we drive code red across town many people don't know what to do, so it puts our personnel and other drivers at risk because sometimes the people react inappropriately when they see red lights and sirens," Hettrick said. " Plus it takes people away from training or other true emergencies that they need to respond to."

Hettrick said it's too soon to say what AFD's savings might be. One thing the department won't be paying any more is licensing fees for its old software program.

"So far it has worked exactly like we want it to work," she said.

Hettrick said it's possible that other fire departments around the country may be interested in using the program as well.

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