Dallas’ 911 call center is falling far short of its goal to answer 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds or less. It is currently staffed with about two-thirds of the employees it is budgeted for. It appears to be in the midst of its third major crisis since 2012.
The current challenge was exacerbated by COVID-19 but not created by it: 911 call takers are leaving faster than they can be hired. The call center is budgeted for 99 call takers but currently has just 69, a decline of 30 percent since the beginning of 2019.
In September, the call center answered just 60.16 percent of its calls within 10 seconds, according to Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune. That is a worse response rate than the last crisis at the call center, in 2017, when news reports told stories about Dallas residents dying while callers were on hold with 911. In the past week, a woman was shot in the face in a parking lot and sat on hold for so long that she drove herself to the hospital.
Fortune detailed the problem in a memo to City Council last Friday. Seven uniformed officers who were working on a limited basis and unable to patrol had been reassigned to answer calls. His memo said two managers “have been reassigned to oversee 911 shift operations.” He wrote that 10 more call takers will begin their training on October 12 and another 17 are “in the final stages” of their background checks. The department is also hiring a civilian administrator that would oversee day-to-day operations and recruitment strategies. That would just about max its staffing.
“Recruitment and retention for the 911 Call Takers has been a challenge recently,” Fortune wrote, which was already a problem by the time the city froze civil service hiring in March to control coronavirus-related losses as much as it could.
The result of that drop-off has been some particularly scary incidents in the past week. NBC 5 reported that it took 55 minutes for paramedics to arrive at a murder scene at the Westin Galleria Hotel, and call data showed three unanswered 911 calls from the front desk. One day later, WFAA found that a woman was shot in the face in a CVS parking lot near Trinity Groves. She could not get through to 911 and eventually drove herself to the hospital. The police department says it tried to call her back but could not reach her.
“I am very concerned about it,” said Mayor Eric Johnson, answering questions during a press conference at South Oak Cliff High School earlier this week. “I’m concerned about it because it seems this keeps coming up every few years. I think this is like the third time in the past eight years that this has come to a real crisis level.”
He is correct, but these crises result from slightly different challenges.
In August 2012, Deanna Cook’s husband strangled her while she was on the line with 911. Officers were dispatched, but the call taker didn’t pass along details that would have indicated the severity of the situation. The police left when no one answered. Her family found Cook dead two days later. A month before that, a house had burned down while callers were left on hold. (No one was injured in that incident.)
Back then, there were 64 of 90 positions filled, according to reporting from the Dallas Morning News. A story from 2012 quoted a chorus of anonymous call center employees describing massive burnout, poor training, inadequate technology, and absenteeism. In response, the city shoveled almost $3 million into the call center’s outdated operations in the basement of City Hall, used sworn officers to staff the center until new call takers could be hired, made sure call takers knew how to communicate situations that needed immediate attention, and reclassified priority levels on emergency calls.
Five years later, in March of 2017, the call center failed again. This time, city officials blamed the problem on contractor T-Mobile’s technology. It was registering legitimate calls as hang-ups, resulting in a clog that stalled other calls in the queue. But operations were similarly strained at the call center. A News investigation found the center was staffed with just 61 call takers despite being budgeted for 101. Even with the glitch and fewer staffers, the call center was answering 76.5 percent of its calls within 10 seconds, well above what we saw last month.
There were similarly tragic anecdotes in 2017. A 6-month-old fell off a daybed and died while his babysitter sat on hold with 911. A 52-year-old man died while his husband was on hold for 20 minutes.
There is no indication of a serious technological problem today. But operational parallels are clear — not enough people is leading to poor performance.
“We knew that the call center is in trouble because we had a higher attrition there than we did in other departments,” says Councilman David Blewett, who represents downtown, Uptown, and East Dallas and sits on the Public Safety Committee. “You can’t stop hiring there for four or five months and think it’s going to be OK.”
Blewett started hearing from his constituents in May that they were having trouble getting through. So the councilman started visiting the call center to learn about the process. It’s a tough job. These call takers have to be intimately familiar with the city’s neighborhoods. Being bilingual is a plus.
The job can come with trauma. Blewett notes that there is a break room that serves as a place for the operators to decompress after a difficult call. And, as Fortune wrote in his memo, it probably doesn’t pay enough. The consulting firm KPMG is currently studying the call center operations and comparing its salaries to other cities. It plans to unveil its findings in November.
“It’s not even hold times, it’s dropped calls. People get tired of holding and they hang up,” Blewett says. “So we call them back, but things slow up a bit. You can get a call back from a 911 operator two minutes later or two hours later, depending on how busy it is.”
The call center’s recent staffing levels tell similar stories every few years. There is a period of high employment that dips low and gets the attention of the City Council once it begins to affect the public. It started 2018 with 61 call takers and grew that to a peak of 99 by the middle of 2019. Since then, it has tumbled to 69. The same thing happened in 2013. It began the year with 54, fell to 49, then hired its way up to 80 by the end of 2014. It peaked at 84 six months later, then plunged through 2018 until reaching 61.
Fortune’s memo notes that 37 employees assigned to the department’s Communications Division — which includes the call center — have either tested positive for COVID-19 or were ordered by a doctor to quarantine. Others have been promoted to dispatch or supervisor roles without a plan to fill their old seat. Salaries for the positions start at $33,000 a year and go up to just below $40,000, according to the city’s hiring website.
Blewett believes the city has to structure these jobs to retain the staff long-term.
“We can figure out a way to make it more of a career,” he said. “We got behind because of attrition and not hiring fast enough. We’re going to catch up with that and then my big focus is long term, making sure people want to be there and stick around for their jobs.”
Blewett hopes to spark a conversation about other efficiencies. After all, it’s not just whether your call gets picked up; it’s how long an officer takes to respond. He wants to explore allowing non-sworn staffers to respond to lower priority issues where violence is unlikely, like hit and runs or car break-ins — anything that could free up an officer to respond more quickly to higher priority calls.
“Maybe we can use this as an opportunity to get more efficient,” he said.
In an email, Councilman Adam McGough, the Lake Highlands representative and chair of the City Council’s public safety committee, said he plans to discuss the 911 problems in the committee meeting next week.
“An immediate answer and appropriate response to a 911 call should be the highest priority level among basic services provided by our city. While I understand that COVID-19 has negatively impacted our hiring and so many other aspects of our service delivery, there is no acceptable excuse for a delayed or unresponsive call to 911. I have been informed of the plans to address the needs in our 911 Call Center, and I look forward to further discussions about this issue on Monday in our Public Safety Committee.”
That meeting will only be the start of vetting the call center. KPMG plans to brief the committee on its findings during the first week of November.