911 calls on campus elicit streamlined emergency response

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EMS graphic for The University of Texas at Austin ambulance
Photo Credit: Jack Mitts | Daily Texan Staff

Emergency response vehicles navigate through traffic on Guadalupe Street with sirens blaring on a regular basis. There’s a chance they’re headed to an urgent scene, but more likely, the barrage of trucks is dealing with something simple — something most students will never hear about — because even in cases of minor incidents, emergency response personnel tend to work together.

When a student is injured on campus and a 911 call is placed, this call triggers a process involving the coordination of two police departments, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service and the Austin Fire Department. Even a minor student injury will catalyze a process dependent on thousands of variables and complex matrices. The student will then likely meet firefighters, EMS workers and a UTPD officer within minutes. 

The first variable that affects the path of a 911 call is geographic — where the call was placed determines who receives it. On-campus landline 911 calls go straight to UTPD, but the majority of emergency requests, made on cell phones, are routed to the nearest city Public Safety Access Point. 

Adam Johnson, acting division chief of Austin-Travis County EMS, said the routing is based on cell phone tower geography. 

“If you hit in one of the areas on campus where you’ll hit a cell phone tower not associated with UT, you’ll be routed to APD,” Johnson said.

Calls about incidents on campus are transferred back to UTPD. 

Once the call has been transferred to the appropriate agency, UTPD dispatchers will ask questions and conference in the Austin Fire Department and EMS, if necessary. To avoid confusion, only one dispatcher asks questions. After a round of initial questioning, AFD or EMS will take over as secondary dispatchers. 

“It’s confusing [for the caller] to have more than one person on the line,” Johnson said. “Typically these are chaotic calls. So we’ll take the lead on the phone — but we work hand in hand [with other agencies].”

The call process and response process as a whole require fluid cooperation between all three agencies. In cases of injury, firemen can often respond faster than EMS workers. In cases of crime, police are required to secure the scene before medical intervention. 

This was the case on Sept. 25, when 22-year-old Chenxi Deng stabbed UT graduate student Li You in the face with a metal fork in the Engineering Sciences Building. 

“We work together as a team, so if somebody’s been stabbed, the ambulance isn’t going to go in until the police have secured the scene,” Johnson said. “We don’t carry weapons.”

Even a hypothetical student falling down stairs would likely result in a response from all three agencies because the fire department has greater resources and usually arrives on the scene before EMS, UTPD Captain Julie Gillespie said.

“If you fell down the stairs, we’re going to respond as police because we want to make a report and know why, but EMS and fire are all responding,” Gillespie said. “If it’s a medical call that comes out, we’re all going to roll.”

Johnson said EMS system deployment relies on the fire department as first responders.

“There are roughly twice as many of them as there are of us,” Johnson said.

For priority-one calls, which include life-threatening conditions such as cardiac arrest, the average EMS response time for incidents on the UT campus was 8 minutes and 15 seconds during the 2012 fiscal year.

In comparison, the Austin Fire Department was on the scene in 4 minutes and 30 seconds.

Once an EMS dispatcher takes the lead in a given emergency call, they will ask a series of questions, and the caller’s answers result in a formulaic determination of how many cars and supervisors to send to the scene. 

Austin-Travis County EMS uses an international system and more than 1,700 different response determinants, including cause of injury and number of people involved in the situation, when responding to an emergency call.

Johnson said EMS dispatchers avoid making intuitive or subjective decisions.

“Our responses are very proscribed, we use a set protocol process,” Johnson said. “We want to have a consistent response, so we try to take as much of the subjectivity — the ‘it doesn’t sound so bad, maybe I won’t send a fire truck’ response — out of the process.”

Similar to the computer-generated responses of EMS, the Austin Fire Department uses the Computer Aided Dispatch system to determine the scope of the response it sends out in a given situation, according to AFD public information officer Michelle Tanzola.

“All buildings of five or more floors are tracked in the CAD system, and [it] will alert our dispatchers when a call has been generated at one of these addresses,” Tanzola said. 

Both firefighters and UTPD are aware of the buildings that might contain hazardous materials.

Gillespie said the campus’ chemistry buildings usually generate a more significant response.

“If it’s Welch, they’re going to send more trucks,” Gillespie said. 

Though EMS and AFD determine responses largely through computers, UTPD personnel largely rely on police standards and training when determining the appropriate response to an emergency call.

“If we get an in-progress call, we’ll usually send two officers, almost no matter what,” Gillespie said. “In our training, what we’re taught is to always have a backup.”

A supervisor might also call for additional police units if the situation presents a risk of escalating danger or involves criminal activity on campus, Gillespie said.

UTPD’s presence in an emergency situation on campus is almost immediate, in large part because the University’s police department’s headquarters are on campus, according to UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey.

“With UTPD, it’s a question of blocks, not miles,” Posey said.