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Half of Austin's 911 calls during busy times aren't answered fast enough, special report finds

A parked Austin Police SUV
Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
A special report looking into Austin’s 911 call-taking during times of high demand revealed improvements are needed to ensure faster answering times.

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A special report looking into Austin’s 911 call-taking during times of high demand revealed improvements are needed to ensure faster answering times.

The National Emergency Number Association says 90% of calls to 911 should be answered in 15 seconds or less. On average, the report found about 77% of calls in Austin were answered within this time frame in 2022 and 2023. However, when the number of calls for help was higher than normal, only about 50% of calls were answered within 15 seconds.

“Higher call volumes usually resulted in longer wait times for callers, and more callers hung up as volumes increased,” the report states.

Austin does not have protocols in place for when this happens, the auditors found.

The report performed by the Austin City Auditor's Office was initiated after Council Member Alison Alter said she called 911 in February 2023 when multiple street racing incidents were reported near downtown and waited 28 minutes before someone answered her call.

This wasn't the first time long wait and response times have been an issue. There have been other instances when people have reported being unable to get through or were put on hold when calling 911.

“I wanted to try to understand how we handle situations where our 911 call center has too many calls coming in at once,” Alter said. “What happens if someone is trying to call EMS at the same time this is happening?”

The findings

Francis Reilly, the auditor in charge of the report, said the team looked at four things: how often the city’s 911 operations experience high-demand events, what actions the city has in place to respond to those kinds of events, how other cities handle these situations and how these events impact caller wait times.

Reilly said that the city does not have a defined threshold for high demand, but said the busyness of the 911 call center depends on the number of calls and the number of call takers on shift.

The report found that while call volumes fluctuated, calls for help were within a normal range most days. The average was 2,447 calls per day. But there were several days that were above normal, including the New Year's holiday and the February 2023 ice storm.

Additionally, the report found that during those times when calls for help are high there are not specific protocols in place to respond to the high volumes.

Reilly said that the city uses a tool known as the Erlang calculator to estimate the number of call takers the call center needs to attain a certain level of service.

“This is based on their anticipated demand and things like processing times for calls,” he said. “APD will schedule additional call takers for predicted days and times of high demand, and for unpredicted times APD can use voluntary or mandatory overtime.”

Austin, though, is not much different from many other cities — like Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth — in how it responds to times of high demand. In fact, the report found that most of the other cities did not have a defined threshold for high demand. Dallas was the exception. Each city also had a different number of authorized staff, shift numbers and average call volumes. However, each city had at least one strategy in place to address high-demand call volumes.

Lastly, the report found that higher call volumes usually resulted in longer wait times for callers.

“We looked at data from Fall 2021 to Fall 2023. [The Austin Police Department] has been below the standard of 90% of calls answered in 15 seconds or less,” Reilly said. “For callers, this means a longer wait to reach a call taker, and if a unit needed to be dispatched a longer wait for that.”

He said most calls were answered promptly, and about half of them were answered within 15 seconds, but there was still a good portion of people who waited two minutes or longer.

Alter said changes need to be made so that people who call 911 for help — no matter the time — get the help they need as quickly as possible.

“We have got to figure out a way to make sure that when we have high call volumes, and especially when they are coming from the same incident, that there are mechanisms for people to get through to 911, especially if they are not calling about that incident,” Alter said.

She said it could also be helpful to have a system that allows people calling about the same incident to know the situation is under control.

Making progress

Since at least 2021, Austin's 911 call center has struggled to maintain staffing leading to lags in response times. Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills said the city has made some strides to get back on track.

Lt. Maria Calagna, who leads the police department's emergency communications, said last week, out of 104 operator positions, 19 were vacant. And out of 75 dispatcher roles, only 12 were vacant. That is a major improvement from October 2022 when there were 69 vacancies among its 911 call takers and dispatchers.

She said the department is still actively recruiting to get to 100% staffing and has increased awareness about the roles at recruiting events, including those for high school graduates.

But even with some vacancies, Calagna said morale and answer rates have improved. She said the call center has maintained a 90% or above answer rate over the last few months.

Still, more work is necessary and city leaders will be looking into how to address the issues.

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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