City Hall

Understaffing and Bad Technology to Blame for Slow 911 Responses, DPD Says

Troubles with emergency calls are causing turmoil at City Hall.
Troubles with emergency calls are causing turmoil at City Hall. Alyson Sheppard
Lackluster staffing and network issues between T-Mobile and the city of Dallas are to blame for the city's recent spikes in 911 wait times, Dallas police officials told the City Council Wednesday, and work is still needed to fix the problem.

Wait times, according to Dallas Police Chief David Pughes and city of Dallas Chief Information Officer Bill Finch, have receded from their highs this spring. The goal of Dallas' 911 call center, according to DPD, is to answer 90 percent of all 911 calls placed by Dallas residents within 10 seconds. Over the three fiscal years previous to 2016/2017, Dallas' 911 operators have done just that, taking no more than three seconds on average to answer calls.

In the current fiscal year, however, the 911 call center hasn't come close to reaching its goal, averaging 22 seconds to pick up each call, with only 78 percent of calls being picked up in under 10 seconds. In March, pickup times averaged 57 seconds.

During the winter and early spring, the 911 center dealt with several instances of abnormally high numbers of calls being received "with no apparent correlation to an initiating event in the area," Finch said. On days when a high number of calls are expected, like July 4 or New Year's Eve, the call center can staff up appropriately, whereas unexpected spikes can leave the city flat-footed. Spikes from March appear as stark outliers in a graph the police provided:

Finch said the times have gone down in large part because AT&T, which holds the city's 911 contract, increased capacity of calls Dallas' 911 system is capable of handling at one time. T-Mobile made changes to the ways its network handles 911 calls as well. When a cell phone user calls 911, the user's carrier assigns their call an identifying number that's visible to the 911 operator receiving their call.

Before working with the city of Dallas to fix network issues last month, T-Mobile assigned its users an identifying number for 30 minutes. When Dallas 911 operators attempted to return abandoned 911 calls using the identifying number, they often ended up calling the wrong phone line, because 30 minutes had already passed and T-Mobile had reassigned the identifying number. Repeating the call-back process over and over again slowed response times across Dallas' 911 system, Finch said.

Those numbers are now good for 12 hours, ensuring that Dallas 911 operators are calling the right phone line back.

The staffing problem is a self-inflicted wound. Despite having the budget for 101 operators, the city employs only  60 and 12 trainees. "We just were not aggressive enough in hiring," Pughes said. "We weren't doing enough to recruit, and we weren't doing enough to hire."

The department is addressing the staffing issues by shortening the time an applicant whose application is turned down has to wait before applying again from 30 to 15 days, streamlining the extensive background check process for potential 911 operators and adding 911 operator positions to DPD's monthly on-site hiring process. DPD recently received 871 applications for operator jobs at a city job fair, Pughes said.

He suggested that current starting pay for call takers be increased from $36,053.

"I shouldn't find out from social media of an emergency situation facing 911 before I get notified by city staff." - Council member Casey Thomas

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While council members were grateful for the update Monday, many expressed frustration that it's taken so long for city staff to provide them with information. "I shouldn't get calls from my constituents or find out from social media of an emergency situation facing 911 before I get notified by city staff," City Council member Casey Thomas said.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings painted the city's 911 problems as a valuable case study for other city departments. "We're going to fix this. We've got a new sheriff in town, [Dallas City Manager] T.C. Broadnax, and we're going to get this fixed," Rawlings said. "I'm hopeful though, that the rest of City Hall can learn from this."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young