EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited with additional information from a City spokesperson clarifying that three calls came in from the father we interviewed, and in each of those incidents – the caller hung up before an operator could answer, which is not advised.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Aaron Hillyer said he, his wife, Anna, and their two children got stuck on the side of U.S. Highway 183 after a crash, and they waited on hold with 911.

Hillyer expressed he waited 15 minutes trying to get through to 911. According to a City spokesperson, calls came in from his number at  7:06 p.m., 7:11 p.m., and 7:17 p.m. At this time, the City said it was not able to provide the exact amount of time Hillyer spent on hold for the three separate calls.

The City has previously provided the following safety information regarding what to do if you are on hold.

  • Do not hang up. Hanging up can delay a call-taker’s ability to answer an emergency call.

“When I kept hearing no answer on the line I felt like I was abandoned,” said Anna.

Aaron said the airbags deployed and the car was disabled.

“I realized very quickly we were in a precarious situation,” he said. “I mean, it was not a good spot on the highway.”

While Aaron stayed on the line with 911, Anna started calling office numbers for nearby police stations. The family said they eventually gave up on 911, got the car to start and drove to safety “knowing we might break down.”

Aaron said they eventually called Austin ISD Police, and an officer connected them with 311 so they could file a non-emergency service request.

Currently, Austin only has about half of the 911 operators it needs. Police Chief Joseph Chacon said the average hold time is about 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

He and City Manager Spencer Cronk addressed emergency call center staff shortages and wait times at Tuesday’s city council work session.

Council member Mackenzie Kelly moved to put the item on the agenda.

“We’ve been hearing from people in the community that when they call 911 their calls are delayed,” she said.

City leaders discussed measures like salary adjustments, adding stipends, developing a citywide recruitment campaign and supporting the retention of existing employees at the call center.

“In an emergency, every second counts and our goal is to get callers the help they need as quickly as possible,” Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said in a press release. “The best way to reduce call wait times is to get more operators to answer calls. I want to reassure the community that retaining and recruiting more operators and dispatchers for our emergency call center is a top priority.”

Salary adjustments will lead to more pay for some existing 911 call-takers and police dispatcher staff to address pay compression that happened after the recent living wage increase. They’re expected to be implemented before the end of 2022.

Salary adjustments

The salary adjustments follow a special review requested by Chacon, who updated city council Tuesday on actions already taken by city leadership to boost recruitment and retention of operators and dispatchers. Adjustments are expected to be implemented before the end of the year.

After the chief’s request for an updated review, the city’s Human Resources Department completed the analysis of the specific pay bands or “zoning” of existing emergency call center employees. The recommendation, announced Tuesday, is staff salaries should be placed in or returned to the zone they were in before the implementation of the recent $20 hourly living wage and pay scale movement. 

Dispatcher and call-taker salaries increased earlier this year after the city council in July asked the city manager to adjust pay rates, so they’d be in the top 25% of what those positions pay in other cities. Entry pay for 911 call-takers increased by 26% (to $22.85 per hour), and entry pay for police dispatchers rose by 35% (to $24.42 per hour).  

According to the press release, for most existing employees, pay has already increased on average by 13.6%. As of last month, 100% of 911 call-takers and 98% of police dispatchers with APD were earning more than the market median based on a study of similar cities, and about a third (37% of call-takers and 31% of dispatchers) were placed in the highest-paid quartile of the market rate for their positions. 

“I sat with a call-taker who let me know she was making less after her years of service than somebody new. And that concerns me for a number of reasons including morale,” said Kelly. “I would hate to lose someone with all that knowledge and years of service just because of pay.”

A stipend was also implemented and renewed for the Fiscal Year 2023 to pay employees with a TCOLE telecommunicator certification an extra $1,800 annually. This benefits all 911 call-takers and dispatchers, because they’re required by state law to have a current TCOLE certification.

Vacancies as of Oct. 10

  • 911 call-takers: 49 vacancies out of 105 positions
  • Police dispatchers: 21 vacancies out of 75 positions

The city’s Human Resources Department reported a steady increase in applicants for both roles following a market study, but the number of individuals hired has not risen at the same rate as the increase in applications.

Part of the reason vacancy rates remain high, according to the press release, is the length of time it takes to hire a 911 call-taker or dispatcher and get them fully trained, which takes several months. There are also many requirements that must be met before someone can begin either of those jobs, including a criminal background check, a drug test and a psychological evaluation.

Hiring process

Meanwhile, HRD discussed hiring practices with APD and made recommendations relating to streamlining the process and ways to include more applicants in the hiring process by excluding fewer applicants early in the review process. The press release said those conversations are ongoing.

HRD and the City’s Communications and Public Information Office is developing a citywide recruitment campaign to promote job opportunities focusing first on 911 call-takers and dispatchers, among other roles with high vacancy rates. 

Chacon acknowledged the importance of the emergency call center and said he’ll “do whatever is necessary to address the issues.”

Previous steps taken to address shortages

Mandatory overtime for call-takers was reduced, so employees could have a better work-life balance and the flow of departures would be stemmed.

APD sergeants are now able to work optional overtime on their days off the answer calls.

What to do if you’re on hold with 911

The city said it is aware some 911 callers are being put on hold before their request for help is answered but said two out of every three calls are answered within 15 seconds. If you are placed on hold, here’s what the city said you should do:

  • Do not hang up. Hanging up can delay a call-taker’s ability to answer an emergency call.
  • Try to remain calm. Be prepared to provide your name, location and nature of the emergency.

APD 911 call takers, who are civilian employees, gather important information that will ensure emergency services and police arrive to the scene as quickly as possible with intelligence on the situation they are responding to. They play a vital role in reassuring citizens, gathering vital information and documenting that information as quickly and accurately as possible.  

APD 911 dispatchers assign emergency calls to police officers in the field using Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD). They also perform computer clearances and information searches and relay call information through direct radio communications to officers, who rely on dispatchers to be their eyes and ears when responding to emergency calls.  

Anyone interested in applying for a job as a 911 call-taker or police dispatcher can do so online.