CBS4 Problem Solvers: Waiting for 911

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- When you call 911 for an emergency, you expect an immediate response. In Marion County, that’s doesn’t always happen.

Instead, people are put on hold, listening to a recording during some of the scariest moments of their lives.

“There were 12 gunshots and I called 911,” said Traci Wagner as she remembered one of several times she says she’s waited for a dispatcher during an emergency. "The length of time that I was on hold was shocking this time. Because it was actually two minutes and four seconds that I was on hold. And to hear a recording, it almost just frustrates you. It makes you mad."

Another man recounted the day he received a frantic call from his daughter, who had long been stuck in an abusive relationship.

"I can hear her baby crying and I can hear her boyfriend cussing and screaming and threatening," said Bruce Wood with a grimace on his face. "I called 911 and I got a recording. And I thought this can’t be right."

He continued driving towards his daughter's house as his son also unsuccessfully tried to reach 911.

"I was nearing her neighborhood and I had to make decisions," said Wood. "Do I go into her home or wait for the police? Well I decided I couldn’t wait for the police."

In a different, potentially abusive situation between a neighbor and a man for whom she no-contact order, Butler-Tarkington resident Emily Gula says she helplessly waited on hold as she watched.

"He was banging on the front door, screaming, it was about 11:30 at night," recounted Gula. "So I got my phone, got up, called 911 and kind of watched from the window. (34) And when it picked up on the end, it was a hold message that just went on for about a minute-and-a-half to two minutes."

By the time a dispatcher picked up, the man was already inside the house.

"I was nervous for my neighbor, not knowing what he was capable of doing," said Gula.

These are just three of the many cases CBS4 found of people desperately trying to call for help. All of them were forced to wait critical seconds or even minutes that could have meant the difference between life and death.

To find out why this is happening, the CBS4 Problem Solvers went straight to the source.

"Do we get 5-minute waits on 9-1-1?" Lieutenant Colonel Joe McAtee asked rhetorically. "Unfortunately we do. Am I happy with that? Never. Never. Five minutes, 15 seconds is too long to wait for 911."

McAtee is the communications division commander. Every day, the goal is to have the average wait time under ten seconds.

But instead, McAtee usually sees timers, on screens around the facility, tick up. They turn red once they hit thirty seconds, which is about the average hold time for Marion County callers.

According to McAtee, most 911 centers expect holds during severe weather or after bad car accidents. During those situations, dozens of people call in a single incident and dispatchers have to answer every one.

McAtee also acknowledges in Marion County, people are also waiting on dispatchers to answer emergency calls at four in the afternoon on a sunny day. When CBS4 visited the center, we saw wait times as high as one minute and 26 seconds between 3 and 4 p.m. on a Wednesday.

Whatever the case, McAtee urges those that are placed in line when they call 911, to follow the recording’s instructions not hang up. If you hang up, you go to the back of the line, starting the hold process all over again.

The reason for many holds, Mcatee says, is simple.

Indy's population and the number of calls from cell phones grows every day. And the 911 center doesn't have nearly enough dispatchers to consistently take all those calls.

"We have retirees and we can't fill their shoes," said McAtee. "If we could boost the starting salary just to be comparable, I think that would help us. Help in getting new hires."

When it comes to dispatcher salary, Marion County just isn't competitive. An entry-level job pays $26,000 a year.

In Morgan County entry-level dispatchers are paid $34,000. They’re paid $36,000 after training in Hamilton County, $39,000 in Johnson County and nearly $41,000 in Hancock County.

In fact, a Marion County dispatcher could drive to any of the surrounding counties and make more money taking far fewer calls. And McAtee says that’s exactly what a few dispatchers a year do.

“Basically we train their dispatchers,” said McAtee. “I mean we've been doing it for years. It's nothing new. So we do lose them. And I don't blame them. You know, somebody offers you $12,000 a year better pay with you know, a fourth of the stress, why wouldn't you take it?”

Out of Marion County’s 47 full-time dispatchers, 27 have left this year. Five more are out with long-term illnesses.

McAtee has only been able to hire nineteen replacements. Half of those replacements are still in training.

“We need to be able to hire 12 people, 5 or 6 times a year,” said McAtee.

Only two people made it out of the last round of hiring. Typically, they start out with fifty or so applicants, but most, McAtee says, aren’t qualified to do the job.

“They go through a written test and we'll lose about half of them there,” said McAtee of the winnowing pool of dispatchers. “Some won't show up or they get other jobs. Then they have a formal interview process. We'll lose a few from that process. And then there's a pretty intensive and thorough background investigation we do and we lose quite a few from that.”

McAtee is working to find more low-budget options for spreading the word about the non-salary benefits the job offers, like paid time off. He's also promoting opportunities for advancement, with more upper-level positions available more often at the busier Marion County Sheriff's Office.

But he says he knows without bigger paychecks tempting more qualified people to apply at the entry level, it could still be hard to fill the chairs.

“I would love for all the city-county council people to come here and take a tour of this facility,” said McAtee. “I mean, we have many needs here.”

Without meeting those needs, those who have waited and waited for a dispatcher to pick up, worry about what their city’s future holds.

“You call the car rental place, you get put on hold,” said Wagner. “You call WalMart, you get put on hold. You call 9-1-1, you don’t get put on hold. That’s just not right.”

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