By Amy Wenk

Just before midnight on Aug. 31, 2009, call takers answered the first call at ChatComm, the 911 center Sandy Springs has operated with Johns Creek since the cities left Fulton County 911.

The call came from a woman worried about a creature wiggling around her front door. ChatComm call takers dispatched police officers, who, on the scene, identified the animal as a snake. To the relief of the homeowner, the snake was removed.

There have been other surprising calls. The center answers about 9,000 calls a month and around 43 calls in a busy hour. Call takers, in the past year, handled a storm of calls from the September flood and even coached a person in delivering a baby on the side of the road.

“It’s a rollercoaster ride from one day to the next,” said Joseph Estey, ChatComm’s deputy director of operations and human resources.

“We’re making a lot of progress,” Sandy Springs Police Chief Terry Sult said. “We are starting to hit a lot of the benchmarks we have set up.”

But ChatComm has yet to make some of the performance goals in its contract. The center aims to answer 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds and process 90 percent of calls within 60 seconds.

In July, the center answered 91.7 percent of calls with 10 seconds and processed 89.2 percent of calls within 60 seconds.

“Nothing’s perfect, but they are batting in the 90 percentiles,” Johns Creek City Manager John Kachmar said.

Kachmar said there is still discussion among ChatComm board members about how to measure performance at the center. In the future, there will be monetary repercussions for iXP Corp., the company that designed, built and operates the call center, if performance goals are not met.

City officials seem pleased with the performance of ChatComm even though both cities have had to subsidize the center when revenues fell short of expectations.

“We are very pleased with the operations,” Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos said. “I think it is a much more reliable service than we had before.”

Fulton County once answered the emergency calls for Sandy Springs and Johns Creek. But fed up with the service, leaders from the two cities converged on a new plan.

“The problem with Fulton County was just inadequate performance,” Kachmar said. “And that is kind of an understatement. We had some severe problems.”

Angela Barrett, director of Fulton County Emergency Communications, said from January to September 2009, the average call processing time for Sandy Springs was 1 minute, 12 seconds. For Johns Creek, it was 57 seconds.

But Noah Reiter, assistant city manager of Sandy Springs, said performance should be measured by the percentage of calls answered within certain time frames.

“We measure everything we possibly can measure,” Reiter said.

The two cities decided to hire a private company to operate a joint 911 center. It cost around $5.6 million to build and equip ChatComm. Sandy Springs contributed almost $1.5 million and Johns Creek almost $600,000, according to Sandy Springs Director of Finance Amy Davis.

“Every month it’s gotten better,” Estey said. “They’ve handled several significant emergencies. It was quite remarkable to watch.”

One of those major emergencies was the flood that occurred last September, just weeks after the 911 center opened. Call takers answered 1,270 calls Sept. 21, about twice the normal call volume.

The center, in its first year, has earned less revenues than forecasted, leaving the center millions short on its nearly $5.5 million contract with iXP.

Both cities had to subsidize operations at ChatComm with general fund dollars. To date, the Johns Creek has contributed $350,000 in subsidy funds and Sandy Springs has contributed $900,000, Davis said.

“We thought there would be enough revenues,” Kachmar said. But the state of the economy, he said, has caused smaller revenues. “People are dropping a lot of their land lines. We don’t have a choice.”

ChatComm is funded through 911 user fees charged by telephone providers. Residents pay the $1.50 monthly fee for landlines, wireless phones and voice-over-IP capabilities.

To supplement revenues, ChatComm leaders are looking to service more cities. There currently is discussion with the city of Dunwoody about joining ChatComm. Reiter said a decision should come in September. He also said Roswell is inquiring about ChatComm. That city, Reiter said, is “in need of pretty significant upgrades.”

“We’re doing extremely well … that’s why we see interest from other cities,” Sult said. “The more people we get in there, the more savings we can create.”

ChatComm now is poising itself for the future with several new technologies.

“We have lots of projects going on right now,” said Sandy Springs Police Lt. David Roskind.

A year ago the FUSION center, ChatComm’s high-tech crime analysis area, was little more than an empty room. Now it’s filled with desks and computers and soon will be the hub for high-tech data analysis, Roskind said.

The FUSION center will receive feed from surveillance cameras across the city. In addition, the center will analyze data collected from automatic license plate readers installed around the city and in police patrol cars.

Police officers also are beta testing video camera technology that is worn around their heads. “We want to be able to see what the officer sees real-time,” Reiter said.

ChatComm leaders also recently agreed to implement a new online service called Smart911, which allows people to provide information about themselves such as their medical conditions and pictures of their kids, which can be useful in an emergency. The service, which one day will allow texting from cell phones, should be up and running by the end of September, Reiter said.

“The nice thing about ChatComm … is having control over your 911 center,” Reiter said. “911 is always going to be your hub of public safety response.”