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Dallas Budget Proposes $1.2 Million To Reduce 911 Wait Times

A blue lit sign reads 911 communications.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA
The 911 communications department, a subset of the Dallas Police Department, is up for more money in this year’s city budget.

Dallas has tried to figure out ways to address problems at the 911 call center that have been dragging on for years. This week, the city council will vote on funding that could address staffing shortages and pay in an effort to decrease wait times.

Four years ago, Dallas resident David Taffet got home from work to the unimaginable. His husband Brian Cross was unconscious and had stopped breathing. Taffet vividly remembers yelling his husband’s name to see if he would wake up. He quickly grabbed his phone and dialled 911. He was put on hold.

“It took 20 minutes to get through,” Taffett said. “While my cell phone was on the night table, I was doing CPR on him for the entire 20 minutes.”

Taffet eventually reached Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedics, but it was too late — his husband died shortly after they arrived.

“It's very frustrating when you get a recording from 911 that says, ‘Your call is very important to us, please do not hang up,'” Taffet said. “It’s the same response you get when you're calling the phone company.”

Cross died in March of 2017. At the time, what's known as "ghost calls" were flooding the 911 call center. Dallas residents dialing 911 were automatically placed on hold, but 911 call takers were not always notified. This led to long wait times or calls that never were answered. The center was short staffed and many employees were working overtime.

Shortly after his husband’s death, Taffet, who's a reporter for the Dallas Voice, went to a press conference and demanded answers from Mike Rawlings, the city mayor at the time.

“The reason that I went public with the story is because everybody relies on 911 at some point during their life,” he said. “It's important that we have a 911 system that works.”

A woman with blonde platinum hair answers at call at the almost empty 911 call center in September of 2021.
Keren Carrión
Marty Hotchkiss, a Dallas police officer with dispatch 8747, takes a family disturbance call at the 9-1-1 Center. “We all have a part to do,” Hotchkiss said.

Long 911 Wait Times Continue

In June of 2021, the 911 Center received over 200,000 calls. The Dallas Police Department said only 55% of calls were answered within the national standard, which requires 911 call takers to answer 90% of calls within 10 seconds. The average answer time for Dallas’ center was 33 seconds.

“Obviously in May and in June, we were struggling,” Robert Uribe, who works with the city’s 911 center said.

Though the city said average answer times were down to 11 seconds in July and 6 seconds in August, officials point to an understaffed 911 call center as to why there’s an ongoing delay in answering all incoming emergency calls. Currently there are 101 call takers and 45 dispatchers.

Many city council members are worried about long wait times and want to see the problem addressed. The city manager’s proposed budget this year calls for $1.2 million to hire an additional 44 call takers and 12 dispatchers.

Call are dressed in blue and wear headsets. They use maps, create reports, and coordinate with dispatchers for every call.
Keren Carrión
Robin Christian, takes a call in a mostly empty office. Christian is a senior call taker, has been with the department for five years and now trains new employees. “We need help,” Christian said. “We have officers that come and help but we would love to get permanent call takers.”

The city has held three hiring events since June, but Uribe said recruitment has been a challenge mostly due to the job’s high demands and low pay.

The additional stressors from the pandemic the past year and a half have also led to a higher turnover in staff. Uribe said retaining staff is key. This year’s proposed city budget also addresses the pay, bumping the starting salary for a Dallas 911 call taker from about $33,000 a year to $43,800.

“We're not putting Band-Aids,” Uribe said. “We're looking at ensuring that in the future we will have a sustainable 911 system that everybody will be very confident in.”

Dallas City Council members will decide if the 911 Call Center will receive the proposed funding on Sept. 22, when the city is slated to adopt a final spending plan.

Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at amartinez@kera.org. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.

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