Preparedness

When Seconds Count, 911 Calls Are Taking Minutes to Answer in Colorado Springs

Records show that in August, the average time it took to get through to 911 was about 21 seconds. The longest wait was in May, an average of 24 seconds.

by Kaitlin Durbin, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) / November 5, 2018

(TNS) — Three times Rose Porter called police on Sept. 22, fearful something bad had happened to her 73-year-old renter, Bill. She could tell he was home, but he wasn’t answering his phone or coming to the door.

She first dialed the nonemergency line but abruptly hung up — this was an emergency. She punched in 911, planning to ask for immediate assistance getting into Bill’s house so she could check on him. She waited for an answer — and waited, for 45 seconds, before the familiar greeting came over the line, “Colorado Springs 911, what is the location of the emergency?”

There was an edge of concern in Porter’s voice as she explained the situation. She’s worried. The call-taker tells her, “We’ll get officers dispatched as soon as possible,” and they disconnect.

Ten minutes go by. Then 15. Then 30. Porter isn’t waiting anymore.

She uses a tool to jimmy open Bill’s door. Inside, she finds him “in terrible shape,” slumped on the floor, his mouth twisted askew, but alive. She dials 911 again. This time a call-taker answers within 8 seconds.

“I need an ambulance right now,” Porter said, emphasizing the last two words. “I think he’s probably had a stroke. … He’s in trouble here.”

It wouldn’t take long for an ambulance to arrive — about 5 minutes — but it was too late for Bill. He didn’t survive.

Porter wrote about the situation in an angry letter to The Gazette, criticizing the city for spending money on anything other than hiring more officers and 911 dispatchers when residents are being “put on hold” and people in crisis “can’t get a cop to show up.”

Other readers have made similar complaints recently.

“In all honesty, I don’t think their response time would have helped, he had had a massive stroke,” Porter later told The Gazette. “But what if he had fallen and was bleeding out? Those three minutes are crucial. The outcome made no difference for Bill, but there are people it would make a difference for.”

Renee Henshaw, the city’s public safety communications manager, says 911 employees “don’t ever put any call on hold,” but callers might hear a recording kick on after 20 seconds instructing them not to hang up but that all lines are busy. She doesn’t consider the recording as being on hold.

Most callers will hear that recording, she said.

Records show that in August, the average time it took to get through to 911 was about 21 seconds. The longest wait was in May, an average of 24 seconds.

That’s more than twice as long as The National Emergency Number Association’s standard of answering 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds.

In an emergency, Henshaw said she understands that 20 seconds, let alone a minute or two, can feel like an eternity, but she argues that the 911 center is doing the best it can with its limited staff. Despite hiring year-round, the center is down eight call-takers and eight dispatchers, she said.

Another nine employees remain in training, meaning they have to be paired with experienced staff.

“It’s like being down 25 positions,” Henshaw said. “The only thing to really be done is to work on our staffing.”

Easier said than done.

Colorado Springs, she said, is plagued by the same problem 911 call centers across the nation are facing: It can’t find enough workers.

To be fair, 911 operator is a tough sell. Henshaw is upfront about the list of cons, which read like a bad job description — constant stress, shift work, secondhand trauma, multitasking, and a certain aptitude for technology.

Employees have previously described taking stressful calls relating to suicide, unresponsive children, fatal accidents and even mass shootings. In 2016, Brianna Ragsdale recounted getting the call as admitted Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear was gunning people down in the parking lot.

It’s not a job for everyone.

So, during peak hours when there should be 14 to 16 people answering 911 calls, “we’re operating with half of that,” Henshaw said.

That means some callers will have to wait.

“For their phone to ring for two minutes is not outrageous, depending on when they called and what they’re calling for,” Henshaw said. “When we have high-profile incidents, people flood the 911 lines, and if you happen to be somewhere else in town and try to call, there’s no way to decipher new calls from old (already reported emergencies). You could get stuck in the queue for two minutes.”

Porter said it’s not just the wait to get through to 911 that worries her. She also was waiting for assistance from a police officer that never came.

Porter said she spent 30 minutes breaking into Bill’s house — no police. She broke in a second time that evening to get some of Bill’s things. That time, a neighbor called in the suspicious behavior. Once again, no police, though Porter said an officer did call her two hours later to ask if it was her.

“If I was a prowler that planned to do harm, I would have been done and long gone,” she said.

It wasn’t just that one incident, Porter said. She lives near the Patty Jewett Golf Course and said residents describe similar incidents all the time on their area’s Nextdoor.com forum. The website is a private social network connecting residents within certain neighborhoods.

One such message warned about a man seen taking a Yeti cooler from a garage.

“Cops?” one resident wrote, inquiring if the theft was reported to police.

“He would’ve been gone before the police would have arrived,” another person replied. “Just another filed report.”

“I’ve had a couple of incidents before and the cops (were on) site within five to seven minutes,” a third resident defended. “Don’t hesitate to call the cops.”

Another situation described a person trying to climb through the window of a child’s bedroom. The resident said he called 911, but ultimately he and a neighbor had to restrain the man, reportedly for 45 minutes, until police arrived.

“If you want the cops to show up quicker … tell them you are scared for your life and loading your gun. Works like a charm,” a fellow neighbor advised.

“Yes, that we HAVE learned,” the homeowner replied. “Are you in danger, yes. Are weapons involved, yes.”

“It’s not good,” Porter said. “You can’t go in the backyard at night. You can’t expect your package to be delivered to your porch. You can’t leave your car out. But we can’t get protection for that.

“It’s an everyday, daylight and nighttime occurrence, and none of us can get a cop when stuff is going wrong,” she continued. “I’m not slamming the Police Department, I think they’re spread thin, but we’re not safe in our neighborhood.”

Lengthy police response times have long been an issue in Colorado Springs. In July, The Gazette reported waits in life-threatening situations of between nine and 12 minutes. About half of that time was spent “in queue,” waiting for an answer or talking to 911 call-takers.

The city has taken steps to drive down those numbers. In 2016, Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey disbanded some units to free up more officers to respond to calls and this year pledged to host training academies of 48 recruits every six months until they’re fully staffed.

Mayor John Suthers also has promised to hire 120 officers by 2022 and has freed up city money to do it. His 2019 city budget includes $9.9 million to give raises to existing first responders, an effort to retain employees, plus another $4.5 million to hire 61 officers and eight firefighters.

But the question of whether that added manpower will significantly reduce response times produces the same answer Porter says she and the community is tired of hearing — wait and see.

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©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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