New Orleans officials unveiled plans Wednesday to improve emergency response times by bringing all of the city employees who take 911 calls under one unified operation.

The long-talked-of idea is to combine what now are essentially separate call centers for New Orleans police, fire and EMS services housed within the Orleans Parish Communications District.

“This is an opportunity to pool our resources,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said.

Right now, the employees taking 911 calls are employed by their respective agencies and take or dispatch calls only for their own first responders. If a call for a fire or medical emergency comes in, police operators — who are the default call-takers — must first transfer the call to someone who works for the Fire Department or EMS.

Under the proposed system, everyone answering phones would be trained to handle calls for all three agencies.

Software on their computers would prompt them with the questions they are supposed to ask for each type of incident, said Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, who was tasked earlier this year with reworking the 911 call system after serving for several years as the city’s homeland security chief.

Just as happens under the existing system, those operators would then relay that information to dispatchers.

The plan calls for training most of the city’s 74 call-takers by January.

“We want everyone to be able to take calls for everything and then dispatch calls for everything,” Sneed said.

According to national standards, at least 95 percent of calls to 911 centers should be answered within 20 seconds. The New Orleans center is averaging between 90 percent and 95 percent of calls answered in that time, Sneed said.

The Communications District is a semi-autonomous agency that handles the calls and dispatching for all emergency services in New Orleans. The board that oversees the district approved the changes earlier this week.

It’s not clear how much of an effect the changes will have on complaints about long response times for police calls. City officials and others say the police force simply has too few officers on the street to respond to many calls in a timely manner.

Other city efforts are more directly aimed at that problem, Harrison said, including plans to allow people to file reports online.

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