AUSTIN (KXAN) — After a KXAN investigation uncovered a deliberate plan to save money on overtime by reducing the hours emergency call-takers work, three Austin Public Safety Commission officials are questioning why their group was left in the dark regarding that information.
“The (Public Safety Commission) has asked on multiple times for specific numbers, most especially number of 911 callers put into a recording mode, and (Austin Police Department) staff has responded that it did not have the equipment to provide these,” said PSC Vice Chair Mike Levy in an email to APD Assistant Chief Brian Manley on Tuesday. “APD staff has acknowledged that the 911 center has a high vacancy rate, that morale is low, that turnover is high.”
PSC member, former Chair and UT professor Michael Lauderdale said in an email he joined Mike Levy in his ‘astonishment’ at the KXAN report. “We, the Public Safety Commission, repeatedly looked at the 911 Call Center, its heavy use of overtime, the stress on its call takers and made each July for more than one year, and did as recently as July and August of 2013, the call for more resources to address these problems.”
The email thread KXAN obtained through public information requests came from a call center assistant manager written to an APD staff member on Oct. 31, 2013 – coincidentally the day of a deadly flood in the city when the 911 system showed signs of strain and overwhelming conditions.
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.”
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. Chief 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.
A response aimed at clarifying the initial staff email came from Communication Manager Marcia Brooks the same day in October. She wrote “the initiative was aimed at reducing overtime. The part that was anticipated, but not an active aim, was the impact it would have on the 911 service levels.”
At December’s Public Safety Commission meeting, Brooks presented slides of 911 numbers to Commissioners including a break-out of monthly hold times. In her remarks she briefly stated, “Our service level as we have tried to be fiscally responsive, everybody has been asked to reduce overtime, and as we put initiatives in place to respond to that direction, our service levels have been impacted, specifically in the hold times.” But Commissioners asked Brooks no direct follow up questions or made requests at that time for further context.
KXAN’s break-down of the 911 hold times was the first time newly-appointed PSC Chair Kim Rossmo said he had seen how stark the increases appeared to be year-over-year.
“I’m very encouraged by the fact KXAN is doing this story. I think that will provide more information that we weren’t privy to before. And that will help us particularly with the upcoming budget discussions,” he said.
“Since one of the goals of the Public Safety Commission is to become information and intelligence-led in terms of our recommendations, I would hope we’d have a more comprehensive analysis, Rossmo added.
911 review underway
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 said 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, equaling 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%.
Levy continued in his email to Manley: “Until a 911 call taker answers, a caller with a house on fire or a relative with a heart attack can only wait. And wait. And wait. Many calls take so long to be answered that they go into a queue and the caller hears a ‘please don’t hang up…your call will be answered in the order it is received’ recording. In bench marking against other 911 centers around the country, Austin did very, very poorly.”
APD leaders are expecting a thorough review of the 911 Call Center needs in the next few weeks ahead of this coming spring’s budget talks.