When Jamie Davidson called 911 early Wednesday to report a burglary at his neighbor's house, he didn't expect to wait almost three minutes for an answer.
A screen shows different calls, their priority and volume at the Communication Department in Little Rock on Friday.
Davidson stayed on the line until he got a response, but said he could not help but feel frustrated. What if he was in danger? What if he needed somebody on the line immediately?
"It just rang and rang and rang," Davidson said. "Mainly, I was p****d."
Staffing vacancies combined with an increased call volume for Little Rock's Communication Department have had an effect on call wait times, said Laura Martin, the city's communications manager.
In a department authorized for 56 call takers, the unit currently has 18 call-taker vacancies. The department, which responds to emergency 911 calls and nonemergency calls for the city of Little Rock, usually has anywhere from 12 to 20 vacancies, Martin said.
Call takers answer calls, collect information on reported incidents, categorize the nature of the call and pass it along to a dispatcher, who sends the proper responders to the scene. Call takers can become dispatchers with additional training.
"So the number of employees has not caught up to the call volume," she said, adding that vacancies in communication departments are a national problem. "So that is one of the driving factors in our vacancies, because the call volume is so high."
In 2015, the department received more than 600,000 calls. Yearly call totals before 2000 were under 200,000, she said.
With the ubiquity of cellphones, Martin said, 89 percent of the department's calls come from wireless phones. More than a decade ago, a traffic accident would likely spur one call from a landline phone, she said. But today, call takers could receive five to 10 calls for one traffic accident, Martin said.
There are other factors that affect how long a caller can wait for a response.
If a person hangs up on a 911 call and calls back immediately, Martin said, that call is put at the end of the queue, since employees answer calls that have been on hold the longest.
Calls from cellphones can also affect how quickly an employee receives a call, she said. Those calls have to connect with a cell tower and go through a tracking system before they reach the communication center, she said.
And during poor weather, the call load can spike in a short amount of time, causing longer wait times.
Employees normally work eight-hour shifts, but Martin said some have been working 12-hour shifts due to the staffing shortage. Former communication employees have also come back part time to help because of the vacancies, she said.
"It is a very stressful job," she said. "The job, in addition to that, comes with liabilities for the city as well as the individual employee."
Martin said working as a call taker is not for everyone, and the stress along with the odd hours can have an effect on retention.
Because of the high call volume and the vacancies, the department revamped how it recruits employees.
The department has attended multiple job fairs this year and now conducts its own recruiting, instead of relying on the city's Human Resources Department. The advertised starting annual pay for a call taker is $28,493.92.
Little Rock police Capt. Russell King and Martin hope to extend the probation period for new employees, with the hope of retaining more applicants.
"You can stay with a trainer a little while longer," King said about a possible extended probation period. "And then you're still a success, it just took you a second more to learn the ins and outs."
A communications job, Martin said, is a good first step toward becoming a police officer and is a way to give back to society.
The city is also taking other steps to manage the high call load received by the department. Last month, the department removed the 311 city service line from the call center and moved it under the city manager's office, King said.
The department is also in the development phase of creating a separate unit that would answer nonemergency calls, allowing the call center to focus exclusively on emergency 911 calls, King said.
King said the project is in its formative stage, and the department is still deciding where the unit will be housed and how the unit will be staffed.
Metro on 08/01/2016
Print Headline: Jump in calls, shortage of staff lead to 911 wait