Portland 911 calls hit 25-year record during riots

Officials said there were nearly 2,000 emergency calls, as well as more than 2,000 non-emergency calls, as civil unrest peaked on May 30


Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND — On May 30, the city’s 911 system fielded a record number of emergency and non-emergency calls for a single day in at least 25 years.

That was the morning Portland police declared a riot in downtown after some protesters set a fire inside the Justice Center and others broke into businesses, stole merchandise, tagged buildings with graffiti and set vehicles a blaze.

In this May 29, 2020, photo, a protester faces police officers in downtown in Portland, Ore. On May 30, the city's 911 system hit a 25-year record number of calls as civil unrest peaked over the killing of George Floyd. (Photo/Dave Killen, The Oregonian via AP)
In this May 29, 2020, photo, a protester faces police officers in downtown in Portland, Ore. On May 30, the city's 911 system hit a 25-year record number of calls as civil unrest peaked over the killing of George Floyd. (Photo/Dave Killen, The Oregonian via AP)

There were 1,930 emergency calls and 2,115 non-emergency calls that day, according to Lisa St. Helen, operations manager of the Bureau of Emergency Communications. 

 “That’s a massive number,‘' said St. Helen, with nearly 25 years on the job. “It’s the highest I’ve ever seen.‘'

While the city’s emergency communications system experienced a drop in 911 calls during the initial months of the coronavirus epidemic, the numbers have returned to a more typical summer volume, according to Bob Cozzie, bureau director.

The time it takes for dispatchers to answer calls continues to exceed the national benchmarks, according to a draft June report.

National standards say 90% of 911 calls should be answered in 10 seconds at peak call times, and 95% of calls answered in 20 seconds for calls overall.

In May, 66% of 911 calls at peak times were answered within 10 seconds, according to the bureau’s figures, far below the national standard -- and a noticeable drop from the 80% percent of calls that met the 10-second answer goal each of the prior two months of March and April.

In June, 67% of 911 calls were answered within 20 seconds, far below the national 95% standard.

The average wait time for a call to be picked up by a dispatcher in May was 15 seconds; that jumped to 22 seconds in June.

“We’d love to have additional staffing to not only respond to calls more quickly but also to reduce'' the burnout of staff who are often going call to call without much breaks, Cozzie said. “They are answering calls back to back to back.‘'

Cozzie said he asks public officials: “On the worst day of your life, when you have to call 911, how many rings are acceptable? A 20-second wait for a call to be picked up is like hearing six rings before an answer; three rings for a 10-second wait, he said.

Cozzie said the 66% to 67% call-answering figure is not ideal.

“We see that and know that’s not OK. It’s always a cause for concern,‘' Cozzie said. He added that it’s impossible to improve that response considering the bureau’s current staffing and the call volume.

To achieve the national benchmarks, Cozzie said the bureau would need 134 certified call-takers. It has 98 now, with 12 others in training, and eight vacancies. The bureau, with a $28 million budget, is authorized to have a total of 118 certified call-takers.

That leaves those who call Portland 911 at risk of waiting longer for first responders to revive someone after cardiac arrest, stop a crime in progress or put out a fire.

The volume of emergency and non-emergency calls has increased every year since fiscal year 2010-2011, growing 28% in the last nine years. The bureau answered 907,067 calls in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, a 4.5% increase over the prior year.

“Increasing demand for emergency communications services represent a risk to maintaining call-taking service levels, as the workload-per-call-taker ratio increases,‘' city budget analysts wrote in a report this year.

The communications bureau has taken steps to try to shift staffing to peak call times. The bureau also removed a cell-phone filter, which required callers to verify their intent to reach a 911 call taker before getting through, which added seven to 12 seconds to each call.

The bureau also has offered dispatchers the choice of working a three-day, 13-hour shift schedule as an alternative to the more common four-day, 9.5-hour shift, which allows the bureau to provide more call-taking coverage during peak call hours, often from 10 p.m. to about 1 a.m.

Compounding the 911 call volume, the bureau’s dispatchers are receiving follow-up calls from people questioning why police haven’t shown. The 911 center, though, hasn’t been able to quantify the number of those calls.

“Anecdotally, I’m hearing callers wanting to know where the police are because there’s a delayed response,‘' Cozzi said. “That adds to our call volume. That’s outside of our control.‘'

In May, Portland police response times to calls averaged from seven minutes for the highest priority calls to 34 minutes for lower priority, non-emergency calls.

The bureau has a citywide goal of responding to high priority calls – such as an assault or robbery in progress - in five minutes or less. Approximately one in four calls for service is a high priority call. “Average response time” measures from when an officer is dispatched to arrival.

The community’s 2019 Portland Insights Survey cited “decreasing wait times for police response,‘' as among the top ways police could improve service to the community.

The bureau this week returned to regular shifts, after re-arranging shifts for protest coverage and curtailing officers’ days off the last month.

The bureau was pulling about 10 officers from each precinct each night to serve in mobile squads downtown during the height of the nightly protests, which reduced the number of officers able to respond to emergency calls, said Portland Lt. Tina Jones, a Police Bureau spokeswoman.

As a result, she said, less-serious, non-emergency calls often get stacked up.

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©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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