Fla. city’s 911 fails to answer 31 calls a day
Former Hialeah dispatchers say calls are unanswered because the 911 center is severely understaffed
By Verónica Egui Brito
HIALEAH, Fla. — When Paulo Rivero fell from the roof of his home in West Hialeah, his wife, Aida, immediately called 911.
But no one answered while her husband was unconscious on the ground. Eventually, after repeated calls, an emergency operator got on the line. Aida Rivero, in her 70s, took her husband to the hospital.
“The ambulance never came,” she said. “I had to take him in my own car to Palmetto Hospital,” she told el Nuevo Herald.
This 2022 incident is not an isolated one for emergency services in Hialeah. And there is growing concern.
Recent data obtained from the 911 Communications Department by el Nuevo Herald reveals that from Jan. 1 to May 31, 4,716 calls went unanswered in Hialeah.
“In my 24 years living in Hialeah, I had called 911 on other occasions, because of high blood pressure or dizziness, but they had never taken so long to respond, and the ambulance always arrived,” Rivero said. “Something has to improve, to change.”
Nearly 5,000 unanswered 911 calls in Hialeah
On average, Hialeah’s Emergency Department fails to answer 31 calls each day. That represents 6.69% of the total 70,469 calls received by the city’s emergency unit in the period analyzed.
From 2021 to May 2023, 33,219 emergency calls went unanswered in Hialeah, according to public records obtained by el Nuevo Herald.
Yisell Rojas, a former employee of Hialeah’s 911 department, attributed the alarming trend in the department to understaffing.
Police Cmdr. Jorge Llanes, director of the call center, told Hialeah City Council members on March 28 that unanswered calls are redirected to Miami-Dade County. But people in the department say this isn’t an automatic process.
Asked by el Nuevo Herald about the number of unanswered calls, Llanes said: “There are multiple calls that come into that number, not all of them are abandoned. I would have to look for that information. Abandoned calls can be many different things; not all are emergency calls.”
Request an investigation to 911 department
Not everyone in the city is satisfied with the official response about what is happening in the 911 department.
After stories in el Nuevo Herald, Councilman Bryan Calvo urged the city to take immediate action and launch a formal investigation into “the alarming revelations brought to light by two recent Herald articles.”
Calvo said he will “submit a formal request to the city administration, urging them to initiate an immediate investigation into this crisis.”
Unanswered 911 calls for more than 15 minutes
The frustrating experience of the Riveros is not an isolated one in Hialeah. Another one of those abandoned calls happened at noon May 9.
That’s when Jennifer Pérez’s call to 911 went unanswered for 15 minutes. She called to report an emergency involving her 10-year-old son, who has autism and was experiencing a violent episode.
Pérez made a couple attempts to reach out for help but received no response. On the third try, a county operator came on the line. Pérez said she complained to the operator, saying that “Hialeah police did not want to respond to her emergency.”
Llanes, the police commander, said that operators are supposed to make callbacks when 911 calls go unanswered.
However, Rojas, the former 911 employee, revealed that due to the high volume of calls during peak hours, the staff often lacks the capacity to fulfill this protocol. “There is one call after another during rush hour, starting at 11 a.m.,” she said.
The Pérez family said they didn’t get a callback.
In Hialeah Heights, 911 calls go to the county
Eric Johnson, president of the Hialeah Firefighters Union, shared his own harrowing experience as both a first responder and a victim.
Following a car accident in the Hialeah Heights area a few months ago, Johnson called 911 for help but didn’t get a response at first.
“When I called again,” he said, “I contacted the county, who transferred the call to Hialeah.”
Johnson said that in the annexed area of Hialeah Heights, 911 calls are often answered by Miami-Dade instead of the city. It’s an area that has had problems with response due to the absence of a police and a fire station, limiting the ability to respond to an emergency.
As a rescuer and victim, he considered that “a single missed call could have catastrophic consequences. Our center suffers from understaffing and low morale. That 911 call could be the difference between life and death.”
Understaffed affects emergency response
Hialeah, the second most populous city in Miami-Dade, employs 43 people in its Communications Department, of which only 18 (41.8%) are call operators, according to public records.
The city has only three people capable of handling all types of emergency calls: police, medical and fire, Llanes said.
When the emergencies of the Pérez family and rescuer Johnson occurred, three operators were working the 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift, the one with the highest flow of calls.
Partial figures for 2023 indicate that the number of unanswered calls this year could surpass the previous year’s count. In 2022, out of 140,161 emergency calls, 7,849 were abandoned, representing 5.6%.
“It is deeply concerning that a city with a budget of nearly $400 million cannot adequately care for its 223,000 citizens.” said Councilman Calvo. “These systemic failures have resulted in a critical breakdown in our ability to promptly and effectively respond to emergency situations.”
Risk of abandoned 911 calls ruled out
Andrew Glassmer, a police radio operator for the department, made an appeal to City Council members on March 28. “We are severely understaffed … unfortunately we need your help. We are very, very desperate,” he said.
But Hialeah Police Chief George Fuente assured that “calls in Hialeah are being answered. The community is not at risk.”
Calvo disagrees: “The current state of our emergency response system is completely unacceptable. Lives are at stake, and we must act swiftly to address these failures and prevent further harm to our community.”
According to Fuente, “the employees we at 911 do a very good job. The community is happy. I don’t receive any complaints about that area. We are trying to improve and one way to do it is to hire more people.”
But for some, turning over the department to the county might be the only solution.
“If Hialeah can’t improve basic security functions within the Communications Department, it should allow the county to take over its operations and absorb our dispatchers,” Johnson said.
Fuente ruled out that possibility.