When you pick up the phone and call 911, the last thing you expect is to be put on hold or get a busy signal. But that is what happened on July 4 when fire broke out in South Dallas. And insiders say it is happening at an alarming rate. Call takers who work on the front line say there is another emergency brewing and that is in the 911 call center.
"Man, it is a big fire. You need to get somebody out here," a person calling 911 reported.
Frustration and anger erupted as the home was engulfed in flames.
"Y'all finally answered the God**** phone about the fire over here on Berwick Avenue," another resident shouted at the 911 operator.
In another instance, neighbors blamed a slow response after a man was struck and killed by a passing car.
"I called twice. It took too long to get here," said a neighbor.
And now the operators, helping on the other end of the line, say they are the ones in need of a rescue.
"We need help. 911 needs help," said a call taker who did not want Fox 4 to show her face. Call takers fear they could lose their jobs. "The citizens of Dallas are suffering because we are understaffed, flat out."
They showed us a photo of the call center and the board showing the number of calls on hold. One day it shows there were 54 calls holding but they say it can climb as high as 100 calls holding.
"They have been severely understaffed in 911 for over a year," said one call taker.
The 911 call center also keeps monthly detailed records of the calls coming in and the staffing levels.
During April 2012, it shows the average speed to just answer a call was taking up to 13, 14 even 15 seconds on some days. On April 1, 2012, the projected minimum staffing was 18 but it shows 9 regular operators on duty. On April 8, 2012 there were 18 projected but 10 regular operators on duty. And these operators say they believe it has gotten worse since April.
"It is the norm," said a call taker.
"7 people short?" Reporter Becky Oliver asked. "Yes, lately that has been the norm," said the call taker.
They say the shortage of staff means hours of overtime on top of the regular eight-hour day. Sometimes it is a 12 or 16 hour day. They fear fatigue is putting the public at risk and overtime is not an option.
"That's a mandate. If you don't stay you get written up. We do get tired, we are sleepy, we are overstressed and nobody listens," said a call taker.
Nobody listens. That is how residents felt on July 4, when a home caught fire in South Dallas. Neighbors called 911. They were put on hold and hung up.
Even though there was a fire station just a block away, it took the fire department nearly 10 minutes from the first call to arrive at the scene.
"911 not answering, that is wrong for taxpaying people," said Delores Lewis, the homeowner's sister. "If they'd been here it wouldn't have been a disaster or a total loss."
In late May, a man was walking from a bus stop on Marsalis Avenue when he was struck and killed. The driver called 911 but neighbors say the police were slow to respond.
"He did stop," said the neighbor. "He stopped last night but it took 911 too long to get here."
Call takers say the first call came into the 911 center at 11:28 pm. The driver called at 11:34 pm but police were not dispatched until 11:48 pm and arrived 12 minutes later at midnight. By then, the driver had taken off. Police arrested him the next day.
And call takers say a high speed chase with a 16 year old driving a stolen truck may have had a different ending.
"It was horrible. It sounded like a plane crash," said a witness to the accident.
Call takers say a call came into the 911 center at 11:42 am telling them the suspect was driving the truck. It took another call from the owner of the truck before the call was upgraded and police were dispatched. That was 30 minutes later at 12:17 pm.
"If the call had been upgraded from the very beginning, when the suspect got in the vehicle, that would have prevented the accident," said a call taker.
Back on Berwick Avenue, the city demolished what was left of the home that caught fire.
The city says too many people called, hung up and called again, clogging the system.
Councilman Dwaine Caraway says what happened in unacceptable.
"When you dial 911, you expect to get an answer," said Caraway. "That 911 call you make could be your only chance to dial 911."
Caraway says he's alarmed to learn people are waiting up to 15 seconds for an answer.
"Fifteen seconds to anybody faced with an emergency is like five minutes," said Caraway. "They are going to hang up that phone and they are going to redial it again and again until they get a live person."
Operators say they have voiced their concerns loud and clear, even put complaints in writing but nothing changes.
"So many operators are working their shift and another shift," said a call taker. "We have been yelling for help and nobody answers."
FOX 4 asked to sit down with Dallas police to go over some of the statistics provided to us and talk about staffing, but police turned down our request, stating it was a security issue.
We also asked several Dallas City Council members for interviews. Pauline Medrano heads the public safety committee. She was not available. Caraway says public safety needs to be a higher priority and residents deserve better. He promises he will be following up.
KDFW FOX 4
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