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Honolulu’s 911 System Plagued by Staff Shortages

The Honolulu Police Department doesn't track how often the 911 system gets overwhelmed enough to play an automated message. But there are times when all of HPD's emergency response operators are assisting callers.

A police vehicle that says "Honolulu Police" on the side.
(TNS) - Assault victim Kenneth Jacob, a Waikiki Neighborhood Board member, retraces his steps and stands at the spot where he was attacked by a homeless man at the Ala Wai Bridge on Ala Moana Boulevard.

A planned automated callback feature would reduce the workload for Honolulu Police emergency call-takers. Above, the HPD communications section at the city and county's Joint Traffic Management Center.

When Kenneth Jacob, a 75-year-old Waikiki resident, was attacked by a man on the Ala Moana bridge over the Ala Wai Canal, he yelled, "Call 911."

Jacob's automated phone assistant Siri called immediately. Jacob expected a 911 call-taker would promptly send police to deal with his attacker, who began beating him when he told him that he didn't have a cigarette. He said that he also wanted first responders to come quickly to address the lump on his temple and three broken ribs.

Instead, Jacob got an automated message indicating that no one was available to take his call, which came in at approximately 9:51 a.m. March 23.

"It was a shocking thing to experience," he said. "I was fearful because I knew nobody was coming right away. If you call the cops, you want them there right away. You need 911 personnel to get them there. Seconds count."

HPD Capt. Matthew Kurihara, who leads HPD's communications division, said HPD doesn't track how often the 911 system gets overwhelmed enough to play an automated message. However, Kurihara acknowledged that there are times when all of HPD's emergency response operators are assisting callers.

"This is especially true if there's a major event, such as a multivehicle collision," Kurihara said. "It all depends on timing. We can't predict when (the call volume) is busy."

In Jacob's case, Kurihara said, "when he calls into 911, if he's getting that recording, it's because our emergency response operators (EROs), the first line — they are the ones that route the call — they are all busy."

HPD Maj. Calvin Sung of the communications division said if the system is busy, callers should keep calling back. If the system answers, they should remain on the line, Sung said.

"Some location data can be collected (if a call comes in and a person gets an automated message). But the system does not have an automatic callback feature," he said. "The longer a caller stays on the line, the more information that we can get."

If callers who are waiting hang up, Kurihara said they go into a queue of calls, which HPD personnel have to manually call back, and that sometimes takes a while.

Kurihara said the division needs another 40 or so workers, so it is focused on recruiting as well as automating its abandoned (dropped or missed) calls to reduce the workload. He said the staffing shortages tend to affect the nonemergency calls, "things that can wait. Now basically your wait is longer, because we are always going to (put) emergency first."

Jacob said he is hopeful that the division will find a way to increase personnel and that adding an automatic callback function to the 911 system will improve response. In his case, he said, an officer showed up after the man who had attacked him had already left.

"I have a memory of the officer saying that he was on a different call," Jacob said.

He added that police still haven't arrested his attacker, whom he believes was living in a tent at the side of the bridge near the entrance to the Ala Wai promenade. Jacob and his son, Dan Jacob, who both serve on the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, are pushing for answers.

HPD spokesperson Michelle Yu said no one has been arrested and that the case is still under investigation. She said HPD is asking for the public's help and has posted video on HPD's Na Maka page,.

Yu said the suspect is described as a Polynesian male, medium build, 30s, 5-foot-8, 200 pounds, brown complexion, black curly hair, wearing a green hoodie, shorts and slippers.

Sung said HPD's communications division continues to work with the vendor for its 911 system to add an automated callback feature.

Kurihara said he did not have a firm timeline for when the upgrade would be complete, but said it's a priority. Abandoned calls exacerbate the workload for the communications division, which he said is short about 34 percent of its desired staffing level.

"There's such a huge volume, it takes a while to go through every single one, so that's why we want this automated assistance. Hopefully, it can help weed out all the ones where somebody misdialed, or a kid was playing on the phone, or somebody was jogging and had their phone unlocked and it accidentally misdialed," Kurihara said." Now we can focus on all the ones that actually do need help and are in those situations where they can't talk, or they couldn't stay on the line, but they still need help."

Honolulu is not alone. Abandoned or disconnected 911 calls are posing a significant challenge to 911 emergency response infrastructure around the nation. Automated abandoned callback is a feature that some other cities already have stood up or are implementing to optimize response time and allow 911 personnel to focus on emergency callers.

The Kansas City, Mo., Police Department started using an automated abandoned callback feature in March. Its callback system will automatically return the phone call to people who have hung up before a call-taker could answer, according to a news release from the department. Once the automated callback reaches the caller, the release said, the system now will prompt them to determine whether they meant to dial 911 and need assistance or if the call was an accident.

Baltimore and Portland, Ore., also are among the cities using automated abandoned callback to more quickly work through hang-up calls to the 911 system.

The website had this to say about the public safety technology: "Most abandoned 911 calls are unintentional, and in many cases are caused by a pocket dial from a cell phone. However, some abandoned calls are from callers urgently in need of emergency help. By using the software, our call center still makes contact with each caller, but calltakers no longer manually make the calls. The software improves our ability to answer 911 calls quickly by reducing the workload on our calltakers."

It's thought that a similar system could make a difference in Honolulu, where Kurihara said abandoned calls make up about 20 percent of 911's bimonthly call volume. He said about 1 million calls come into the 911 system annually. He said some 80 percent to 85 percent of those calls are directed to the police, and the remainder go to fire or EMS.

Kurihara said if a caller accidentally calls 911, please stay on the line and let the emergency response officer close out the case. If the caller hangs up, the call goes into the pile of calls that HPD must return, he said.

Kurihara said that's why it's important to answer if HPD calls to check on a dropped 911 call as "our job is to make sure that you are getting the help that you need. If they can't reach you, they might have to send a patrol or street officer, and they have many other tasks to do."

Sung also encouraged nonemergency callers to reduce the 911 call volume by using Honolulu 311, the official mobile application for the City and County of Honolulu to report nonemergency issues, like parking complaints, potholes, homeless issues and requests for city-related services. He said some nonemergency situations also may be reported online at.

Sung added that the public is encouraged to create an account, which offers emergency messages, traffic situations and weather advisories. He said this site provides real-time information that could reduce nonemergency calls to the 911 system.

Kurihara said adding the automated callback feature in Honolulu also would reduce the workload for call- takers, allowing them to focus on emergencies. It also provides a better response to callers who may not be able to stay on the line.

"That's why we want to implement this automated feature," he said. "We have openings and are always looking to hire more EROs and police communications officers (radio dispatchers)."

The city has seen Honolulu Police Department applications go up since March, when it announced a $25,000 hiring incentive. However, that new program does not apply to the communications division, where pay begins at $50,388 per year, plus incentive pay of $2 per hour when working.

"Our division is looking at possible (new) incentives as well," Kurihara said, adding that the division also has been using quiet rooms, peer support and therapy dogs to help workers manage stress.

The best perk of the job is that it is rewarding, said Essie Cardoza, who moved from Las Vegas to Honolulu to take a job as a police communications officer 1, which means that she answers the 911 calls that are routed to HPD by emergency response operators.

"I would say this would be a fantastic job if you never want to be bored and if you want to feel emotionally rewarded," Cardoza said. "This is a beautiful city, and to be part of something that is trying to make it better and safer for everyday people is unspeakably rewarding. Beyond that, obviously, it's got a lot of job security. People always need the Police Department, so this job will always be here."

Cardoza said technology is enhancing the job, but she does not believe it will replace it.

"You just need that human on the other line to get them help," she said.


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