News : Abandoned 911 Calls in Colorado Springs Go Up
Dec 16, 2013 -- During an emergency, seconds can feel like minutes — or longer. Fear and adrenaline change the perception of time when people want immediate help.
That's why waiting for a 911 call taker to answer for even 15 seconds or so can be nerve-racking.
Linda Riendeau Schlarb, 62, called 911 when a man stormed into her business, Old Town Propane on Colorado Avenue, and became confrontational. After listening to at least 35 rings, as she remembered it, she hung up and enlisted her husband to handle the situation, aware that it could have escalated and possibly become violent.
Schlarb, a 20-year business owner, said such a situation can be even scarier in one's home.
"You're trapped in your house, so you'd want a cop there even sooner, so 911 taking a longer time to pick up is really scary," she said.
Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey wants those calls answered more quickly, too, and he asked City Council for money to add staff to the call center.
Every time a 911 caller hangs up before the call is answered - logged as an abandoned call — a lot of effort is expended to trace the call, call back and log what the emergency was.
Carey told the council during a budget hearing this fall that up to 5,000 calls to 911 are abandoned every month, such as in Schlarb's case.
A closer look at the Colorado Springs 911 call center's records shows Carey wasn't exaggerating. More than 22 percent of 187,615 calls handled by the Colorado Springs 911 call center up to August of this year were categorized as abandoned.
In 2012, 20.5 percent of 268,392 calls were listed as "abandoned," and 18.7 percent of 252,328 calls met the same fate in 2011.
"Answer times are increasing because each year our call volume is growing, but we have not raised our minimum staffing numbers to keep up," said Renee Henshaw, 911 center communication manager.
The 911 call center employs 34 full-time emergency response technicians, or call takers, covering three eight-hour shifts around the clock, every day. Carey wants to add six full-time call takers.
In addition, there are 45 dispatch call takers whose job is to handle seven channels and communicate with the four police subdivisions, the administrative police channel and two fire department dispatch lines. Part of Carey's budget increase plan would shuffle call center staff, removing four dispatch call takers.
"Because we've been operating at minimum staffing for so long, our hope is to have extra call takers to answer phones and handle emergency calls only," Henshaw said. "With the new budget, we'll be removing four dispatch positions, to fund more call takers. Our staffing needs have changed, we need the extra bodies to help out."
The noticeably busier summer months, Henshaw said, can be attributed to more people being outdoors and the schools' summer vacations. The Waldo Canyon fire may have contributed to a sharp increase in 911 calls in June and July 2012: there were 4,925 abandoned calls in June and 5,603 in July.
This year's heavy rains and flash floods also played a role in a surge in call volumes to 911, especially in August and September, when average answer times increased to more than 20 seconds per call. According to call center records, the floods Aug. 9 through 13 prompted 5,483 emergency calls to the 911 center and more than 10,000 more to the police department's dispatch lines. Of those, 1,148 calls were logged as abandoned, a small percentage in lieu of the circumstances, Henshaw said.
"The floods really did increase the number of calls, and everyone in the call center did an amazing job, they pulled together in times of crisis and worked around the clock, lots of people worked overtime to cover shifts," Henshaw said.
Regardless of the wait, Henshaw said, it's imperative for callers to stay on the line.
"Each time someone hangs up, we have to track the number down and call it back. Every single abandoned call gets a call back," Henshaw said. "All of this takes time and takes a person from answering a new incoming call."
If the abandoned call comes in from a land line and the 911 center can't reach anyone, police officers are dispatched, Henshaw said. When police or the 911 center makes contact with the caller and they can verify that the call was accidental, they cancel the call.
"If we reach someone and we have any indication it was not accidental, regardless of what we're told, we will send officers to verify," she said. The call center, however, does not keep records to track how many abandoned calls turn out to be accidental or prank calls, Henshaw said.
Over time, there has been a noticeable increase in accidental dials to the 911 call center, especially with smartphones and how easy it is to activate their screens if they're not locked, Henshaw added.
"We don't track that difference, all the abandoned calls are built into our system the same way, and they all get call backs," she said. "Placing them in separate categories after the fact would create more work for everyone involved."
However, if an abandoned call turns out to be a real emergency or disturbance, the call center staff will take the time to categorize it accordingly.
Callers also should consider that each phone call gets fed into an automated call distributor, which sends the call to the next available emergency response technician. Emergency calls to 911 take the highest priority and are fed first, while all other nonemergency calls are transferred after, adding to the massive volume of calls the center handles daily. Because of the automated call distributor, callers will always hear at least two rings before it reaches the call center, so if someone calls and then hangs up, their call loses priority, Henshaw explained.
Teresa Francis, 41, knows how frustrating it can be to wait for a 911 call taker to pick up. On Nov. 6, she was at her house in east Colorado Springs when she witnessed a drunken driver crash into a parked car with three children and their mother in the vehicle.
"The phone probably rang for what felt like two or three minutes, then I gave up and hung up, it was a very high-stress moment," Francis said. "You expect someone to answer, especially if you're in a really threatening situation."
At the same time, Francis said, the woman whose car was hit called 911 and reported the other driver was intoxicated. Together, the two women did everything they could to keep the situation under control, as well as keep the drunken driver at the scene, who insisted he wanted to leave.
"We waited for about 10 minutes and called 911 again. This time it rang for awhile and finally we got an answer," Francis said. "The ambulance arrived within the next few minutes of the second 911 call, but police didn't get there for at least two more hours. We were alright and we didn't mind waiting, but what if we hadn't made the second call to 911? The guy's blood alcohol level could have changed, and we felt responsible for him so he wouldn't leave."
Despite the wait, Francis said, she was grateful to the emergency responders and police officers.
"I realized how vital these services are to all of us. I honestly believe that most people would gladly approve more money to go to the police and fire departments, if that meant we would have better response times and more emergency personnel to help."
As soon as the 911 call taker answers and processes the emergency, units are dispatched if necessary. But police and fire crews' response times are affected by other factors, such as the availability of free patrols and engines, Henshaw said.
Besides adding call takers to the roster, the public can play an active role in reducing answer times and call volume, Henshaw said. Understanding what constitutes an emergency and warrants a 911 call, as well as how the call center operates, is critical. Calls should be made to 911 to stop a crime in progress, report a fire or if there is immediate danger to life.
"When a call taker answers the phone, they are completely devoted to you and they're focused on helping you and making sure you have someone to talk you through what's happening until first responders are there with you," Henshaw said. "The questions they are asking, it's all simultaneously passed on to emergency responders and police. They're trained to get you to safety, getting as much information about the situation before police or firefighters get there."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Colorado Springs Police:
The Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) is the central police department for the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado. CSPD is known nationally in the United States for, among other operations, the capture and/or eventual surrender of several members of the Texas Seven.
Published: Tuesday, December 17, 2013