Ore. 911 callers often on hold for several minutes as calls rise, staff drops
Portland's lengthy hold time is far above the national standard and the latest example of problems plaguing the city’s emergency dispatch system
PORTLAND, Ore. — People calling 911 to report Saturday afternoon’s shootout at a Pearl District restaurant and other emergencies in the following half-hour waited an average of more than 7.5 minutes before a dispatcher answered.
The lengthy hold time is far above the national standard of 15 to 20 seconds for 911 calls and the latest example of serious problems plaguing the city’s emergency dispatch system.
One man on social media complained that he was on hold for more than 9 minutes when he tried to report the shooting at Everybody Eats PDX. The Oregonian/OregonLive then sought public records from emergency dispatch to check what happened.
Bob Cozzie, director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications, acknowledged the unacceptable delay and said it’s time for the city to start considering routing non-emergency calls elsewhere or other solutions.
“I think it’s horrible. There’s no other way to state it,” he said.
Cozzie cited a significant increase in the volume of both 911 and non-emergency calls, the loss of call takers and new training that has limited available staff as contributors to the lag.
His bureau answers about 1 million calls a year, about 550,000 911 calls and 450,000 non-emergency calls that deal with everything from shootings to car prowls. The dispatchers then route emergencies to police, firefighters or Portland Street Response. They often send non-emergency calls to other city bureaus, such as transportation or housing.
The bureau tracks average 911 call answer times by month to gauge its track record. The data shows an average hold time of a minute. But it also shows a dramatic increase of 911 calls on hold for two minutes or longer starting in late spring and summer.
Another striking jump of calls on hold for more than five minutes occurred in May and July, according to bureau figures released to the newsroom.
Compared to March, when only eight 911 calls took more than five minutes to answer, that number increased to 221 in May and more than doubled to 574 in July.
Compared to a year ago, the bureau has experienced a 20% to 45% increase in 911 calls so far this year depending on the week.
During July, for example, people made a total of 63,573 calls to 911. That represented a 22% jump from July 2020, according to bureau data. For comparison, 911 calls in July 2020 represented only a 2 percent increase over July 2019.
Cozzie said more than a dozen employees have retired, taken leaves of absence, been promoted or resigned over the past six months.
Current staff also are still in training on new medical and fire triage protocols that are intended to cut down on the number of fire trucks sent to low-level medical calls, he said.
“We’re at a tipping point now. It’s become unmanageable,” he said. “The system is broken.”
‘CALLED 911 BUT COULDN’T GET THROUGH’
Calls to 911 poured in Saturday when three people were wounded at Everybody Eats PDX at the corner of Northwest 10th Avenue and Davis Street.
An argument inside the restaurant led to a physical fight with shots fired inside and then more outside in the early afternoon, police said.
A woman and two young men showed up in private cars at local hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries from the shooting, police said.
A manager at the restaurant on Wednesday said the business didn’t call 911 and declined further comment.
But one 911 caller noted on Reddit that he had to wait more than 9 minutes on hold before a dispatcher answered his call on the shooting. Another 911 caller wrote on the Reddit thread that, “I called 911 but couldn’t get through. Same with everyone I talked to.”
Though wait times for the flood of separate 911 calls from the shooting were long, police responded quickly.
Dispatchers received the initial call about the shooting at 1:19 p.m., according to police and the communications bureau. They dispatched police at 1:21 p.m. and officers arrived three minutes later, according to Sgt. Kevin Allen, a Portland police spokesman.
In the half-hour after the initial report of the shooting, the dispatch bureau processed 115 calls of both emergencies and non-emergencies, according to the bureau records. The average 911 wait time during that period was over seven and a half minutes, according to Dan Douthit, bureau spokesman.
At least two dozen of those calls were likely linked to the shooting, Douthit said.
Less than a block away from Everybody Eats PDX, people rushed into the skate shop Tactics on Davis Street. They were “freaking out” about the gunshots, said employee Kevin Holmes.
The shop locked its doors, he said.
Holmes wasn’t surprised to learn of the long waiting time for 911 calls, he said.
He recently called the non-emergency line as he watched someone breaking into a car just outside the business, he said. He followed the thief’s progress through the store’s front windows while he was on hold for about 15 minutes, he said.
“You know you’re not going to get the help you need in this city,” Holmes said.
‘WE ARE AT A BOTTLENECK’
The average wait time for Portland dispatchers to answer a 911 call has increased each month since November 2020, when it was 21 seconds, through this past July, the last month with full data, when it was 56 seconds, according to bureau figures.
It can be much longer for people making non-emergency calls — sometimes for more than hour, Cozzie said.
The communications bureau has 106 call takers and dispatchers who handle both 911 and non-emergency calls of 128 full-time positions authorized, with eight of those still in training.
Bureau officials said they’re about to start one training academy for new dispatchers and have four more training academies planned next year to help fill the positions.
But Cozzie said he doesn’t expect the circumstances to change without a full revamp of the emergency system and some other agency or system picks up non-emergency calls.
If Cozzie had his way, his bureau would no longer be the first stop for non-emergency calls and they instead would be routed to the city’s 311 line to free his dispatchers to focus on true emergencies.
He has proposed that if police are still needed for the non-emergency call, then it would be sent back to the emergency bureau.
But 311 now is answered only on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The 311 system is designed to provide callers with a single contact to find information on city and government services. It’s based out of the office of the city’s chief administrative officer, though the approximately 15 customer service specialists who take calls now work remotely.
The 311 system program manager, Michelle Kunec-North, is working with the city’s public safety agencies and emergency communications to identify any service that can be taken over by 311 “to alleviate non-emergency call burdens to these bureaus,” according to a 311 report from November. The special line could help people fill out certain non-emergency police reports, or request copies of existing police reports.
The 311 line should handle calls around-the-clock, Cozzie said.
“We are at a bottleneck,” he said. “I want to remove the bottleneck.”
Mike Myers, the city’s new community safety transition director, said just before he started the job on April 1 that he wanted to explore how the city can better redirect low-level, non-emergency or medical calls away from 911 dispatch to a non-police response. To expand to around-the-clock 311 call service, 28 full-time call takers would be needed at a budget of nearly $3.2 million, according to city records.
Automated call-back technology, which the communications bureau is exploring, is another way to potentially cut down on the wait times, Cozzie said.
If someone calling 911 now disconnects before a dispatcher answers the emergency call, dispatchers must call the person back. The average callback time for dropped 911 calls was 2 minutes and 28 seconds, according to the bureau.
The combination of changes would help the bureau get closer to the national standard — at least ensure a 911 call is picked up within 30 seconds, not minutes, Cozzie said.
“I want to see drastic improvement,” he said.
City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who oversees the communications bureau, said the current conditions must improve. But he said shifting all non-emergency calls to the 311 system will be a “heavy lift” and likely will take at least a couple of years.
“This cannot go on any longer,” Mapps said. “Frankly, it’s an emergency. There’s a policy discussion that needs to happen to clarify what our goals are. It is urgently important that we change right away. I’m embarrassed by our underperformance. I apologize to the people of Portland. They deserve better.”