Bystanders jump in as Atlanta woman waits on hold for 911
ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) – You might expect to hear an automated recording when you call your power company or your cell phone provider – not when you call 911. But that’s exactly what’s happening to thousands of 911 callers in Atlanta.
In an emergency when every second counts, a CBS46 investigation uncovered a frightening trend. In 2020, roughly 5% of Atlanta’s 911 callers waited on hold for more than 40 seconds. In 2021, that number grew to 9% and in the first four months of 2022, that number jumped to nearly 13%.
Atlanta’s E-911 Director, Desiree Arnold, blames low staffing, high call volume and technology issues for the longer wait times. Records show at least three power outages have also taken place at the Atlanta E-911 Center since November.
The Atlanta E-911 Center receives roughly 3,000 calls every day and 1.2 million calls per year. Right now, their phone systems do not separate 911 calls from non-emergency calls.
‘Please do not hang up’
While waiting at a stop light in northwest Atlanta, a man walked in front of Alexandria Hadd’s car and began screaming.
“He started hitting the hood, then he eventually broke off the wiper blade,” Hadd said. In a panic, she put her car in park. “When I put it in park, my doors automatically unlocked and that’s when he came into my car,” Hadd explained.
She grabbed her phone and dialed 911. She was greeted with this recording: “You have reached the city of Atlanta 911. Your call is very important to us. Please do not hang up. The next available operator will answer your call.”
Desperate for help, she hung up and re-dialed but she heard the same recording. While waiting on hold, bystanders pulled the man from her car.
“I don’t know if he was having an acute mental episode or was otherwise distressed in that moment. I don’t really know why he picked my car to stand in front of and attack, but he did,” Hadd said. “If it hadn’t been for bystanders pulling the man from my car, I don’t know how long I would’ve been in that moment.”
She drove home and called 911 again. This time, she talked to a dispatcher.
“I called twice but it didn’t go through. And then I hung up. It was in the middle of like, an emergency,” Hadd told the dispatcher. “He snapped the windshield wiper off of my car. I, I was trying to call you guys.”
Increased Wait Times
CBS46 uncovered a frightening trend in the numbers, showing an increase in 911 wait times. For the first four months of 2022, nearly 13%, which is over 40,433 people, sat on hold more than 40 seconds. That’s an increase from 2021 where it was at 9%, and 2020 at 5%.
The majority of Atlanta’s 911 callers do not wait on hold for more than 10 seconds. In the first four months of 2022, roughly 75% of Atlanta’s 911 callers or 245,855 people called 911 and waited less than 10 seconds to talk to an actual person.
“I thought you get through right away, all the time,” Stephen Canavan said.
Stephen Canavan was also greeted with a recording when he called 911 in North Atlanta, last month.
“I called to report an alarm [going off] here at the Lindbergh MARTA station. I was placed on hold and ended up in a loop,” Canavan said.
The recording played over and over again for more than five minutes before a dispatcher answered. Canavan recorded the call and shared it with CBS46 Investigates.
“Obviously 911, it could be a life or death situation,” Canavan said. “In my case, it wasn’t, but there needs to be a better response time.”
E-911 Director Agrees
“Is that a problem?” CBS46 investigative reporter Rachel Polansky took Alexandria and Stephen’s stories directly to Atlanta’s E-911 Director, Desiree Arnold.
“Yes. It’s a problem. We’re working to resolve those issues,” Atlanta’s E-911 Director, Desiree Arnold, told Polansky.
Arnold blamed high call volume and low staffing for the longer wait times.
“If you want to help us resolve the issues, come be a part of the team,” Arnold said. “Along with everyone else, we’re experiencing staffing shortages. It’s a nationwide issue. We’re not immune to it. We are working to hire. We have conducted job fairs. We’re actively and continuously recruiting.”
According to vacancy data, Atlanta budgets 170 positions for E-911. Currently, 141 of them are filled. Arnold said 18 of those positions were created last year because of an increase in 911 calls.
“City Council approved pay raises for our employees last year. It was a significant pay raise, 15% to 20% for some employees, to make us more competitive in the industry,” Arnold said.
911 Power Outages
Staffing is not the only factor impacting wait times.
Through public records, CBS46 Investigates found that three power outages have taken place at the Atlanta E-911 Center since November. Two took place in November and one took place in February. After the February incident, a city worker recommended the city buy a new power supply because the old one was “20 years old and at end of life.”
Also in February, the chiller went down resulting in AC failure and 911 on-site dismissal.
Arnold said she could not address outages and infrastructure and sent Polansky to the Department of Enterprise Assets Management (DEAM), the department that oversees city buildings, facilities and maintenance. A DEAM spokesperson told us that a $3.6 million dollar plan is now in the works to replace and upgrade equipment at the E-911 center.
Burden went on to say that construction is expected to begin in August 2022 and finish in May 2023.
The Atlanta E-911 Center receives roughly 3,000 calls every day and 1.2 million calls per year.
Right now, their phone systems do not separate 911 calls from non-emergency calls.
“We’re looking to upgrade the phone system so that we can differentiate the two, so we’ll have 911 calls going into one queue and non-emergency calls going into another queue,” Arnold said.
Arnold expects that upgrade to be implemented by the end of 2022.
In the meantime, if you call 911 and you hear a recording, do NOT hang up. Arnold said hanging up and calling back will not put you at the front of the call line. In fact, it will only create more issues for call takers.
“Do not hang up the phone. Someone will answer the phone,” Arnold reiterated.
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