Waiting for 911: Overtime cuts lead to longer hold times

AUSTIN (KXAN) — An internal City of Austin email reveals a deliberate plan to save money on overtime by reducing the hours emergency call-takers work.  A call center assistant manager wrote that email to an Austin Police Department staff member on Oct. 31, 2013.

The email refers to a new division spending plan created in June 2013 and reads in part:

‘This initiative was purposefully aimed at lowering our 911 Answer Rate [Service Level] in order to be more fiscally responsible and to seek out cost-saving measures associated with the 2012 4th Quarter. As a result, we spent a lesser amount of monies towards phone coverage hours directed at 911 services. While we accomplished our target percentage rate, it came at the cost of extended 911 hold times.”

Austin Police Department Asst. Chief Manley
Austin Police Department Asst. Chief Brian Manley

Records show 5,693 calls from July to September 2012 were placed on hold.  Callers listened to a looping recording of a voice advising them not to hang up. The same period last year, the number shot up to 20,477.

Asst. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley who oversees much of the budget and staffing-related issues in the police department responded saying he was not aware of specific numbers related to the reduced overtime plan.

Changes are already in the works in Austin’s Emergency Communications division. In January Commander Julie O’Brien began leading the mostly civilian division with the help of one police lieutenant. Manley said their role is to develop a top-to-bottom needs report in time for this year’s budget requests.

Cmdr. O’Brien told KXAN Investigator Robert Maxwell it is “not a good thing” to have 20,000 callers on hold, but O’Brien added, “I will draw attention to the fact there were hundreds of thousands of callers answered in less than 10 seconds. We’re not satisfied, and it’s always something you try and work with.”

The goal is to answer a call in no more than 10 seconds. Overall Austin’s 911 call center is making that goal more than 90% of the time, equalling the national standard. In January it was 94.2%, records show. In December, 2013, it was 93.9%. Two years ago, before call-taker overtime cuts, the call answer rate in Austin was 96%.

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Month Austin 911 Communications Center
Answer Times in Seconds (PSAP Answer Time Report)
0-10 11-20 21-60 61-120 120+ Total
Nov
2013
Calls 63,899 1,599 2,853 938 319 69,608
Percentage 91.80% 2.30% 4.10% 1.35% 0.46% 100%
Dec
2013
Calls 61,693 1,126 1,923 605 316 65,663
Percentage 93.95% 1.71% 2.93% 0.92% 0.48% 100%
Jan
2014
Calls 64,181 1,211 1,987 530 208 68,117
Percentage 94.22% 1.78% 2.92% 0.78% 0.31% 100%

— Source:  City of Austin

 

Budgets flat, call takers needed

Keeping up standards has proven to be a tall order. Over the last two fiscal years, records show Austin’s Police Operations Support/ Communications Division received no increases to its total budget. The Austin 2014 Budget dropped nearly $71,000 year-over-year to $13,782,137 despite a slight rise in overall call volume.

As for overtime this fiscal year, the 911 call center’s overtime was $630,412, cut by $5,000 from a year earlier. At the same time, the vacancy rate held at about a dozen staff positions, records show.

Commander O’Brien said she commends the work her staff is doing and serves as their advocate when it comes to asking for more money.  Call center funding choices are left to the Austin police department’s executive team. It forwards needs recommendations to the city manager’s office before each budget cycle. The city manger drafts a budget based on departmental priorities and sends the draft to the city council for consideration.

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Number of 911 Calls
by Month and Year
2011 2012 2013
Jan N/A 56,455 64,216
Feb N/A 59,129 62,755
Mar N/A 72,598 71,911
Apr N/A 69,499 68,526
May N/A 72,734 74,179
Jun N/A 70,652 72,288
Jul 59,953 73,685 73,832
Aug 60,388 70,963 73,305
Sep 60,871 67,454 68,388
Oct 60,100 68,760 74,626
Nov 56,560 63,475 69,608
Dec 55,530 67,275 65,663
Totals 353,402 812,679 893,297

Assistant Police Chief Brian Manley told KXAN, during the 2014 budget talks, “We did have requests for call takers and dispatchers. When we looked across the department last year, the issues we were facing, some of the other departments that had significant needs, the prioritization did not include placing the communication personnel at the top of the list.”

Records show in 2013 APD’s communications division requested 26 new call-taker positions and listed them as a number one priority. None were funded.  This year, the budget request included 10 new call-takers as well as up to six new supervisor positions. The idea behind hiring new supervisors was to return existing call-takers covering those support jobs to the front line. Again, no new positions were funded.

Manley said there were greater needs in the 10-year old forensics division like hiring technicians to reduce a six-month back log of DNA testing related to criminal investigations. Money also went to support APD’s business intelligence and technology programs. Part of that includes using computer software to predict areas of potential criminal activity in the city.

Austin Police executives would not speculate on priorities for this coming fiscal year which begins in October. The budget process gets underway at city hall this coming summer. Chief Manley said his department’s internal budget needs lists are due in two weeks and will include Cmdr O’Brien’s new evaluation review of the communications division.

Other factors at play

  • Vacancy rate
    Cmdr. O’Brien said the current vacancy rate at the communications center is at 12. That includes eight dispatcher positions, three call-taker spots and one part-time position. While the division is constantly training recruits (who can be as young as 18 years old), it’s wrestling with a turnover rate of 30%, and they’re almost always hiring.  Staff is also now reviewing a new method of training aimed at keeping staff longer. A decision on that is expected this spring.
  • Call Volume
    Last year, city budget documents show Austin’s 911 call center received 797,524 calls – up more than 13,000 from the year before.  Six percent more of those were emergency or urgent calls where call-takers are required to stay on the line longer. That factors into longer wait times for other callers. In fact, the average time to process an emergency call rose five seconds last year to one minute and 17 sseconds, budget records show.
  • Call Spikes
    As well, call center managers said call load increases are now commonplace. Those include a spike in calls during Austin’s weekday rush hour or during an unpredictable event like a brush fire or flood when multiple people call in one emergency.There is a protocol in place to handle call spikes. City staff said for every event, Emergency Communications uses any combination of three components:

    • Shifting Non-Emergency personnel over to 911 (as was done during the Oct 31st flood)
    • Holding over shift personnel until the situation stabilizes
    • Hiring overtime staff if sufficient time for planning is available (and overtime budgets are available)
  • Special events: More annual special events like ACL and South By Southwest also strain resources across city departments.

The Onion Creek Flood – new response time numbers

In January, KXAN investigated the emergency response to the Oct 31 Onion Creek flood that claimed five lives in Travis County and did millions of dollars in property damage.

At the time, it was reported callers to Austin Fire Department’s lines were put on hold after they were transferred from the first line of call takers at Austin 911.

Now, KXAN has learned the massive 911 call volume (1,157 between 6:00 – 9:00 a.m.) forced Austin 911 itself to place more than half of the emergency calls on hold that came in during the peak of the flood.  That was when most property owners were waking up after the night of heavy rain.

During the 6:00 a.m. hour alone, records show 138 callers listened to a recording for more than a minute. Call center managers could not say if anyone who died in the storm was put on hold at any point. Fire officials said all those who lost their lives were either outside their homes or in vehicles that were overtaken by the floodwater.

Asst. Chief Manley said he remains confident in the ability of the emergency communications center to handle the next big disaster.

“We’re able to do that, maybe in not the most efficient way because we’re having to use overtime and we’re having to have people come back, stay late after their shift, but we’re able to make that part of the Department work. Other parts, we don’t have that ability, and we’re facing critical needs there as well.”

The City’s own After Action Review is due in mid-to-late March. It may recommend more 911 and Austin Fire Department call-taking positions, more swift water rescue boats and more US Geological Survey high water gauges on flood-prone tributaries of Onion Creek.

Also in the works, enhancing 911 to include the ability for people to text, send video and share vehicle GPS information. CAPCOG, which oversees the 911 system for Central Texas, spent nearly $5.5 million in October 2013 upgrading computer equipment in preparation. The system is not operational yet.

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