AUSTIN (KXAN) — More viewers are reaching out to KXAN as emergency calls go unanswered for too long. The Austin Police Department is still seeing a major staffing shortage with 911 call-takers and dispatchers.
Monday, it told KXAN it’s down 23 dispatchers out of 75 allotted staff and down 49 operators out of 105 positions.
More people told KXAN they’re getting put on hold during emergencies and are demanding change.
Three months into being a new mom, Marianne Nitsch found herself one of the people to experience that amid a life-threatening moment.
Home alone with her newborn, she accidentally ate something she was allergic to.
“I was starting to have trouble breathing, and my — the back of my throat was, was closing,” she recalled. “When something like that happens, I know I’m starting to have a really serious, system-wide reaction.”
With her baby in her arms, she quickly put him down in a secure place.
“So that if something happened to me, he would, he wouldn’t be in harm’s way,” Nitsch said.
She then injected herself with an EpiPen and called 911. She said an automated message greeted her, telling her to stay on hold.
“I sat on hold for what felt like at least a couple minutes, maybe up to maybe five,” Nitsch said. “I was worried… I was going to pass out or lose consciousness before I had the opportunity to tell somebody what was going on and tell them I needed help.”
Austin Police told KXAN when there’s no operator available to take a call, it sits in a queue and is transferred immediately to the next available call-taker. It didn’t tell us how long, on average, that could be.
Nitsch said once an operator got to her, they sent EMS right away, and she was treated promptly.
But she wants to share her experience to pressure leaders into making change.
“I just hope to draw attention to the issue and that the city council and city managers will make sure to give this issue the appropriate attention and priority it needs. The first responders who have helped me were great, but they need help from the city to be able to help people who are in life-or-death situations,” Nitsch said.
Deborah Lozano wanted to use her nearly 20 years of experience in customer service call centers to help answer the call for more 911 operators.
“When I saw the stories on KXAN… I was like, you know, they really need help. And I’m looking for a job. And so, why not? Yeah, let’s see if I can, you know, be a part of the solution here,” she said.
But she said the application process was “humongous,” “long” and “daunting.”
The job posting indicates the applicant needs to get two state certifications within six months and one year of employment. It also requires a skills assessment test, interview panel and psychological assessment and interview.
“I feel like at this time when we need call-takers, there should be a simpler process. Maybe hire people temporarily for a while,” Lozano said.
She thinks APD should review requirements for 911 operators during this staffing shortage, just like it did to get more APD cadets by recently changing requirements for physical testing, marijuana use and debt.
“I get it, you know, there’s rules and… regulations and all of that stuff. But I just think that, you know, there’s a way to incorporate that without throwing it at someone all at once,” she said.
KXAN asked APD if it’s considering changing any application requirements to be a 911 call-taker or dispatcher. It hasn’t yet responded.
The mayor’s office said it shares concerns about 911 wait times and is requesting an APD briefing with more data.
APD’s moves so far
The police department has been trying to tackle its 911 staffing issue in a few ways.
Last month, a pay increase went into effect for both 911 call takers and dispatchers by about $2-$3 for an entry-level position.
APD has also started allowing sworn employees to pick up 911 calls on their days off for overtime pay. APD said it was an “unconventional solution” to the issue of vacancies within the call center. A department spokesperson told KXAN it was a temporary fix and not a preferred method of filling those vacancies.
In August, APD lowered the minimum number of 911 call-takers required per shift. It told us that was so it could ease the mandatory overtime those workers were putting in and reduce the risk of even more workers quitting.
“It was a very difficult decision because obviously there are consequences,” Lt. Ken Murphy, who heads APD’s Emergency Communications Division, told KXAN at the time. “People calling 911 are not going to get the immediate response they deserve to receive. This is not the service we want to provide, this is not the service our operators want to provide. However, it’s necessary, again, to retain our staff.”
According to a city memo last month, APD is supposed to report back to city council at the end of the year on the impact of all its efforts and its progress in recruiting and reducing its vacancy rate.
That briefing, the memo stated, will include information on the number of people applying for operator and dispatch jobs, “the number hired, the vacancy rate, the impact of salary increases and stipends, compression issues, and any other challenges addressed.”
You can find the application to be a 911 operator or dispatcher here. Just type in “call taker” or “operator” into the keyword box.