Data on Atlanta 911 calls raise concern

By Alan Judd
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Atlanta's 911 center falls short of national standards for answering emergency calls — but how far short is a mystery, according to WSB-TV.

Citing data from the Atlanta Police Department, the television station reported last week that some callers have been placed on hold as long as 38 minutes before getting through to an operator in the city's 911 center. While delays that long are unusual, WSB found that the 911 system frequently diverts callers to an automated message asking them to wait for assistance.

Standards set by the National Emergency Number Association say that 90 percent of 911 calls should be answered in 10 seconds or less.

From May to July, however, at least 30,000 calls could not be answered that quickly, according to documents that WSB obtained from city officials. WSB, like The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, is owned by parent company Cox Enterprises.

In August, according to a city performance management report, 911 operators answered just 1 percent of calls within 10 seconds. Ninety-six percent, however, were answered within 20 seconds.

City officials told WSB they weren't sure they had provided correct data; nor were they sure they could come up with accurate information on hold times. A computer system that runs the 911 system might also be counting calls to non-emergency lines, officials said. The city told WSB it is working with its computer vendor to improve the system and is hiring more operators to cut hold times.

The television station quoted residents who experienced what they considered to be unacceptable delays getting through to the 911 center. One, Cyndi Hatcher, recalled calling 911 after hearing gunshots in front of her home last July, only to be placed on hold for an extended period.

"Atlanta is a major city, and we have some major problems with crime," Hatcher said, "and until they can sort out the 911 situation, I don't even think the police can do anything about it."

Even Grady Memorial Hospital can't count on reaching the 911 center, WSB said.

When a minor electrical fire broke out in the hospital's ambulance dispatch center, workers called 911 — and were placed on hold. Finally, they called the nearest city fire station, which sent a truck to put out the fire.

Answering the call — eventually
The Atlanta Police Department assigns each call to its 911 center a priority that dictates how much time officers have to arrive. The most serious calls get an "immediate response" priority; others require officers to arrive within 10, 20 or 50 minutes. But an analysis of 911 records from January through July shows that, with too few officers on the street, many calls are held by dispatchers longer than the total acceptable response time.

Copyright 2009 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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