Abandoned 911 calls are higher in Austin so far this year than in the past two years combined
The 911 operator, the one who asks, "What's your emergency?" is the first step in the process of getting help. But Austin residents have found themselves being put on hold in situations where every second counts.
The national standard is for 90% of 911 calls to be answered within 15 seconds. As of Oct. 13, the Austin Police Department’s answer rate for the month was at 66.25%, according to Lt. Kenneth Murphy, director of emergency communications.
"Which is not good at all," he said.
The slow response is because half of APD's 911 operator positions are vacant.
Casey Callahan spent more than seven years as a police dispatcher before becoming a communications supervisor, overseeing the department. She said Austin 911 used to be the "gold standard" of call centers.
“There were agencies from other states, from other countries, coming to Austin 911,” she said. “Because they wanted to know what we were doing that made us so good at our jobs.”
“I cannot tell you how many employees I’ve had to pull aside and counsel, because they’re distressed and feel so guilty about not being able to provide the service that they feel we should be providing.”Casey Callahan, communications supervisor
Callahan said answer rates and morale used to be high several years ago. But issues left ignored cumulated into a citywide crisis.
The department has been asking the City of Austin for a pay raise for years to hire and retain employees as the cost of living has risen substantially in Austin. An entry-level 911 operator is paid $22.85 an hour, which works out to about $45,000 a year — far below the median family income for a one-person household.
With so many vacancies, calls go unanswered for long periods of time and frustrated callers abandon the line. There have been more than 61,000 abandoned 911 calls so far this year — twice the number this time last year and almost 10 times that of 2020.
Callahan said it’s dangerous for operators to put people on hold. Major incidents that are visible, like car crashes or grass fires, generate lots of calls.
“You have 20 people calling in about one incident, and then you have that 21st person on hold calling in about a domestic violence incident or medical emergency,” she said. “And we just don’t have enough people to answer.”
Callahan said 911 operators are strained and overworked. They used to have a minute or two between calls, “and now as soon as they hang up, they’re answering another call," she said. "There’s no time.”
She said she’s noticed more symptoms of PTSD among her staff in the last couple of years than ever before.
“I cannot tell you how many employees I’ve had to pull aside and counsel," she said, "because they’re distressed and feel so guilty about not being able to provide the service that they feel we should be providing.”
To help with the call volume, APD's Emergency Communication Division is actively training police sergeants to work as 911 operators. Murphy said the department is also doing everything it can to quickly recruit and train operators.
The city advises anyone placed on hold when calling 911 to not hang up. If you hang up, it says, you will delay the ability of a 911 operator to answer your call. Try to remain calm and be prepared to provide your name, location, and nature of your emergency.