The 911 operator, the one who asks, “What’s your emergency?” is the first step in the process of getting help. But Austin residents have found themselves put on hold in situations where every second counts.
The national standard is that 90% of 911 calls are answered within 15 seconds. As of Oct. 13, the Austin Police Department’s response rate for the month was 66.25 percent, according to Lt. Kenneth Murphy, director of emergency communications.
“Which is not good at all,” he said.
The slow response is due to the fact that half of APD’s 911 operator positions are vacant.
Casey Callahan spent more than seven years as a police dispatcher before becoming a communications supervisor, overseeing the department. She said Austin 911 was the “gold standard” for call centers.
“There were agencies from other states, other countries, coming to Austin 911,” she said. “Because they wanted to know what we were doing that made us so good at our job.”
“I can’t tell you how many staff I’ve had to put aside and advise because they’re upset and feel so guilty that they can’t provide the service they feel we should be providing.”
Casey Callahan, Communications Supervisor
Callahan said response rates and morale were high several years ago. But the ignored problems have accumulated into a city-wide crisis.
The department has been asking the City of Austin for years for a pay raise to hire and retain employees because the cost of living has risen dramatically in Austin. A novice 911 operator is paid $22.85 an hour, which equates to about $45,000 a year, well below the median family income for a one-person household.
With so many vacancies, calls go unanswered for long periods of time and frustrated callers abandon the line. There have been more than 61,000 abandoned 911 calls so far this year, double last year and nearly 10 times that of 2020.
Callahan said operators were forced to put people on hold a few weeks ago when they received an influx of calls after a semi-truck veered off I-35 and crashed in a lamppost. Meanwhile, in another part of town, a man was calling to report that his cousin had been stabbed.
“He called four times and was put on hold each time and eventually stayed on the line and managed to find someone to answer the phone,” she said. “His cousin did not survive.”
Callahan said 911 operators are tense and overworked. They used to have a minute or two between calls, “and now as soon as they hang up they answer another call,” she said. “There is no time.”
She said she has noticed more PTSD symptoms among her staff in the past two years than ever before.
“I can’t tell you how many staff I’ve had to set aside and advise,” she said, “because they’re upset and feel so guilty for not being able to provide the service that they feel we should provide”.
To help with the volume of calls, the APD’s Emergency Communications Division is actively training police sergeants to work as 911 operators. Murphy said the department is also doing everything it can to recruit and quickly train operators.
The City advises anyone placed on hold during a 911 call not to hang up. If you hang up, he says, you will delay a 911 operator’s ability to answer your call. Try to remain calm and be prepared to provide your name, location and the nature of your emergency.