AUSTIN (KXAN) — Have you been put on hold when calling 911? Did you go minutes waiting to report an emergency?
KXAN viewers reached out with concerns after long wait times when trying to speak to a 911 operator.
“The telephone pole right before Mount Bonnell road was on fire along with the grass around it,” said Neal Walton, who called to report a fire. “I called 311, and the lady took my information and said I am going to patch you through to 911, and I was on hold for like five minutes and no one picked up.”
Walton said after five minutes he hung up, expecting someone to call back, but no one ever reached out.
KXAN reached out to 311 to see what happened and received this statement:
…Austin 3-1-1 received a call from a resident at 5:15 regarding a telephone pole on fire near 2222 and Mount Bonnell. The call was transferred to 911 almost immediately as caller identified the fire was in progress. It appears the transfer took about 12 minutes. Once 911 operator answered the call, our ambassador was told that AFD was already aware of the situation and the call ended. Any other follow up questions you’ll need to reach out to APD or AFD PIO.Austin 311 Office
Walton’s story is more common than you might think. In fact, many viewers told us they have had to wait for a response after dialing 911.
Francine, reached out to KXAN after someone shot at her house in September.
“This bullet shot went through my youngest son’s room right by the bed,” said Francine as she pointed out multiple holes in her home.
As rounds were being fired she called 911, but she did not get an immediate response.
“Finally they picked up after I want to say it was two minutes,” said Francine. “It felt like two minutes, it might have been three.”
In August, APD lowered the minimum number of 911 call-takers required per shift to help alleviate the stress of staff shortages.
Lieutenant Ken Murphy, who heads APD’s Emergency Communications Division, told KXAN at the time the move was crucial to the well-being of staff members, and by extension, the retention of those staff members at a time when vacancy rates were around 50%.
“It was surprising to me because the first thing I thought was what if someone is having a stroke or a heart attack and they need immediate response and they aren’t going to get anyone to pick up the phone?” said Walton. “It is a problem.”
Even with lowering the minimum number of 911 call-takers per shift, APD said Monday it’s still down 23 dispatchers out of 75 allotted positions and down 49 operators out of 105 allotted roles.
APD said the staffing issue isn’t unique to its department, and cities throughout the country struggle to find 911 employees. The department said people leave for different reasons, including for better compensation, for better hours and the overall stress of the job.
As a short-term solution to ongoing staff shortages at the Austin Police Department 911 call center, the department is allowing sworn employees to work overtime to answer calls.
APD said it has had to come up with “unconventional solutions” within the call center. These are temporary fixes and not a preferred method of filling those vacancies, a department spokesperson told KXAN.
“It is hard to keep people staffed, and it is a high-stress job. I understand that, but something has to be done,” said Walton.
Walton is hoping they can increase pay for the 911 operators and get more people to join. As for Francine, she said if there is an emergency, who knows if someone will answer.
“I have lost faith in calling 911,” said Francine.
What to do if you’re waiting for a 911 call-taker
KXAN reached out to APD Friday morning to find out what someone should do if they are put on hold during an emergency.
APD explained on Monday when a call hits the 911 queue, the caller is distributed to the next available operator. But if no operators are available because they are helping other callers, the call sits in a queue until it can be transferred to the next available call-taker.
APD said if you hit the queue, do not hang up and call back, as you will lose your place on hold and fall further back. Calls are answered in the order they come into the 911 center.
KXAN also reached out to the mayor’s office for comment on the staffing shortages and delayed responses. We will update the story once we hear back.