“I waited 5 minutes”; 911 callers affected after delayed response to emergency calls

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Are you on hold when calling 911? Did you wait minutes to report an emergency?

KXAN viewers reached out with concern after a long wait when trying to speak to a 911 operator.

“The telephone pole just before Mount Bonnell Road was on fire along with the grass around it,” said Neil Walton, who called to report the fire. “I called 311 and the woman took my information and said I’ll put you through 911 and I was on hold for about 5 minutes and no one picked up.”

Walton says he hung up after five minutes, expecting someone to call, but no one did.

KXAN contacted 311 to see what happened and got this statement:

…Austin 3-1-1 received a call from a local resident at 5:15 a.m. about a telephone pole on fire near 2222 and Mount Bonnell. The call was transferred to 911 almost immediately as the caller determined the fire was in progress. The transfer seemed to take about 12 minutes. After the 911 operator answered the call, our ambassador was told that AFD was now aware of the situation and the call ended. Any other follow up questions you will need to contact the APD or AFD PIO.” -Austin 311 Office

Walton’s story is more common than you might think. In fact, many viewers tell us they had to wait for an answer after dialing 911.

Francine reached out to KXAN after someone shot at her house in September.

“That bullet shot went through my youngest son’s room right next to the bed,” Francine said, pointing to multiple holes in her home.

As they were shooting, she called 911 but did not get an immediate response.

“They finally picked up after I mean two minutes,” Francine said. “It felt like two minutes, maybe it was three.”

In August, APD reduced the minimum number of 911 responders needed per shift to help ease the stress of understaffing.

Lt. Ken Murphy, who heads APD’s Emergency Communications Division, told KXAN at the time that the move was critical to the well-being of staff members and, by extension, retaining those staff members at a time when the vacancy rate jobs was about 50%.

“It was surprising to me because the first thing I thought was, what if someone had a stroke or a heart attack and they needed an immediate response and they didn’t get anyone to pick up the phone?” Walton said. “This is a problem.”

As a short-term solution to ongoing understaffing at the Austin Police Department’s 911 call center, the department is allowing sworn officers to work overtime to respond to calls.

APD said it had to come up with “unconventional solutions” at the call center. These are temporary adjustments and not a preferred method of filling these vacancies, a department spokesperson told KXAN.

“It’s hard to keep people staffed and it’s a high-stress job. I understand that, but something has to be done,” Walton said.

Walton hopes they can increase pay for 911 operators and get more people to join. As for Francine, she says if there’s an emergency, who knows if anyone will answer.

“I lost faith in calling 911,” Francine said.

KXAN reached out to APD Friday morning to find out what someone should do if they are detained during an emergency. APD hasn’t responded, but we’ll update the story if they do.

KXAN also reached out to the mayor’s office for comment on the staff shortage and delayed responses. We’ll update the story once we hear back.

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