AUSTIN (KXAN) – During the week of February’s winter storm, an urgent call came into Austin’s 911 center.
“There’s two gentlemen threatening to kill me,” said the caller, who told 911 operators he was calling from the Hilton Hotel at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“They’re standing outside the window with weapons,” the caller says in an audio recording.
That call was one of 34,443 emergency calls Austin’s 911 operators fielded from Feb. 14-20, as snow and ice storms slammed central Texas. The Austin Police Department said that number is almost double the number of 911 calls in a normal week. The inflated call volume includes emergency calls that usually happen, plus thousands of additional incidents directly caused by severe winter weather.
After KXAN received a viewer tip expressing concern about staffing at Austin’s 911 center, our team began looking into the issue. We spoke with current and former call takers, dispatch center leaders and city council members about the staffing challenges.
One of the most informative conversations was with a former Austin 911 operator, who agreed to an interview if we’d protect her identity.
“When I was starting, I was excited because I wanted to be able to help people,” the former operator said. “I wanted to be able to protect our officers.”
She said her enthusiasm soon began to melt away. Stress took over, a product of insufficient training and staffing, she said. The former call taker said she later resigned for those reasons.
“As soon as you hang up, there is no time to take a breath because you will be getting another call,” she told us.
KXAN Investigator Kevin Clark asked the former 911 operator: “How manageable was the workload of calls for the staff that was there?”
“It was overwhelming,” the former operator responded.
High turnover and staffing numbers
Staffing turnover at the Austin 911 Communications Center is high. According to rosters we obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request, there have been 100 departures since the beginning of 2019. That includes 911 operators, dispatchers and supervisors under the Austin Police Department. Eighty of those 100 employees resigned.
For perspective, the number of 911 center employee departures in three years is more than half the current total of 194 employees who work there now. Fully staffed, APD has 230 employees. Right now there are 36 vacancies, with 23 of those at the call-taker position.
The former 911 operator we spoke with said she is worried about what could happen during major emergency events in the future; in particular, the number of callers who could be waiting for someone to pick up the phone.
“Very, very often calls do get put on hold, because there’s just not enough people to answer,” she told us.
To learn more about the problem, we visited the Austin 911 call center and spoke with Lt. Ken Murphy. He manages APD’s Communications Division and is a zealous advocate for his call center employees and the work telecommunicators do.
“It’s call after call. And, it’s always an emergency,” Murphy said. “Imagine talking to someone on the phone, one after the other, who is having, in their mind, the worst day of their life.”
Murphy defended the training for new employees, calling it “thorough and extensive.” A syllabus for new city of Austin call takers includes four weeks of classroom instruction, followed by eight to 12 weeks of on-the-job training.
This is similar to the training timeline at Round Rock’s 911 dispatch center. That city’s police department said all Round Rock communications personnel go through a two-week orientation. From there, call takers spend three months assigned to a trainer for on-the-job training. Round Rock police say call takers then enter a 40-hour basic communications classroom training program to obtain their license from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
But, when it comes to staffing at Austin’s 911 center, Murphy acknowledged it is “an issue.”
“We have postings open all the time,” he said.
Murphy said the 911 Center had single-digit vacancies in 2019. However, and for reasons he could not fully explain, he said staffing challenges began toward the end of that year and have grown worse.
“Some have left because they moved out of state, some have left because they found a higher paying job,” Murphy said. “It’s just a tough job. And, it’s tough to find people who can last in this job.”
Murphy cited a recent group of 11 applicants for 911 operator positions. He said only two people made it through the process to even begin training.
“We average about a 2% hire rate of all applications,” Murphy said.
When someone calls 911 in Austin, their call goes to the first available operator before being triaged to the appropriate agency. If all operators are on a call, a light goes on in different locations around the dispatch center, meaning at least one caller is on hold.
While we were at the 911 center, this only happened a couple of times and only for a second or two.
“While we do hold calls at times because of call volume, we still get to those calls in a relatively timely manner,” Murphy said.
Austin call answer times and national standards
Our team analyzed APD data spanning several years to show how long it is taking Austin 911 operators to get to emergency calls. In April 2021, operators were answering 95% of calls within 10 seconds. In April 2019, before Murphy said he started to lose more staff, that number was 98%.
Murphy tells us while 911 answer times have slipped due to staffing shortages, the center still exceeds the national standard of answering 90% of calls in 15 seconds or less. Even this February, which included the winter storm, call takers met this mark at a 91% rate, according to city records.
Those call time standards are put forth by the National Emergency Number Association, known as NENA. The organization provides standards as an information source for the emergency communications center industry. There are around 17,000 911 centers around the world that adhere to standards set by NENA, but participation is voluntary.
However, NENA does not have any national standards specific to staffing. The organization said staffing level standards are set at the local or state level because many 911 centers are different, depending on the jurisdiction and its needs. For example, some 911 centers combine the jobs of 911 operators and dispatchers into one position, while larger centers like Austin generally keep the positions separate.
“It’s impossible to do something at a national level as far as true control,” said April Heinze, the 911 & Public Safety Answering Point Operations Director at NENA.
Heinze told us staffing issues are not unique to Austin. She said there is a 15-20% turnover rate for 911 center employees nationwide.
But hiring more 911 operators and dispatchers is a priority for Austin City Council member Mackenzie Kelly, who represents District 6.
“That really does hurt my heart,” she said after we showed her the list of 911 center departures over the last three years.
“When I look at that list, I see a lot of names and a lot of people who no longer work for the city, and that needs to change,” said Kelly, a former volunteer firefighter.
Kelly said she is requesting $100 per month first responder stipends for 911 center employees in next year’s city budget. Murphy said he’s pushing for that, as well as money to reconfigure the operations floor, which would accommodate new hires.
“They don’t get the recognition they deserve,” Murphy said.
The former 911 operator believes public safety is at stake, along with the morale of her former co-workers.
“My heart still stops when I see some of those calls,” she said. “There were days when I went home, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just worthless. I’m not even worth being on this earth anymore.'”
Right now, there is a pending Congressional bill that would classify 911 operators as “public safety employees.” They’re currently classified as administrative employees at the Federal level. NENA tells us the “911 Saves Act” is largely symbolic but would allow employees more bargaining power for better pay and benefits.
In 2019, Texas state lawmakers passed a law that began classifying 911 dispatchers as first responders.
Investigative Producer & Digital Reporter David Barer, Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.