Behind the scenes of 911 Call center as staffing crisis continues

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Dec. 28, 2021 at 10:39 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Door dash driver Ryan Menehune’s call to 911 after a customer threatened to shoot him fell well outside the goal to answer emergency calls.

“I started making my exit around the corner to where I had parked. And that’s when I heard him rack the slide on his gun signifying that he chambered a round into the firearm,” Menehune said.

Police Chief Chad Kasmar had been the center’s director at the time of the emergency call.

“So that phone rang for 51 seconds, which is longer than we would have liked,” he said.

The center’s goal to answer is 15 seconds 90% of the time.

So what happened in this case? How bad is the staff shortage?

To put it into perspective, they only have half the staff needed to cover the 33rd largest city in the country.

Voluntary overtime is needed to balance the workload.

“We do have a small amount of people who do a tremendous amount of work in the Tucson region for our 11 public safety partners,” Kasmar said.

The 911 center is consolidated meaning it now handles fire, medical and police calls in the region, a much bigger workload for fewer staff on the floor.

Jason Brown is the operations coordinator. He explains the layout of the building and the quarters are cramped.

“So on this side over here is our fire dispatch section. They handle all of the fire and EMS dispatching for Tucson Fire and all the agencies surrounding Tucson that we dispatch for. So we have fire and police dispatch separately,” Brown said.

Included on the police side are commissioned officers. They’re also on the floor when they can carve out time to help alleviate the strain on staff.

Tyler Ashton has been taking calls for the past 6 months.

“We don’t have to go every single call. I can advise people maybe going to a police station would be a better alternative,” Ashton said.

It’s also beneficial to have officers with them because it helps make the call takers more “well-rounded.”

“They get to talk to the officers. They understand why they’re asking the questions,” Brown said.

One of the 911 call takers asking questions is Ivan Delatorre.

He switches back and forth between fire and police depending on the situation. In one call he took, a man reported that his girlfriend may have had an ovarian cyst that ruptured. He proceeded to ask the man whether she was conscious and breathing normally.

Those questions appear on digital medical cards based on information provided by the caller.

“It’s very nice to have these questions right in front of you. And even to go in order. They’re been put in priority after a while you know what you’re fishing for and where this going to head already,” Delatorre said.

He runs through a myriad of questions to provide as much information to paramedics before they arrive at the location.

The entire call lasted 2 minutes and 23 seconds.

Delatorre works fast, but there are calls that come in that he doesn’t want to deal with. Those non-emergency ones that can create backlogs and cause delayed response times.

“We do get those a lot of ‘My powers out’, ‘Dairy Queen is closed’, my favorite. We try to guide them the best that we can on where to go. More than anything I try to free myself up to get the next emergency call,” Delatorre said.

Keeping tabs on all those emergency calls and how they’re handled are the supervisors.

“The call takers can come to them for questions. They’re always located in this area right here,” Brown said.

They’re situated in the center of the room.

These supervisors are watching to make sure events are assigned correctly with appropriate responses going to each emergency.

Kelly oversees Team 4, which covers the far east side of town.

Brown explains that she has the ability to see the events that have been dispatched or waiting to be dispatched as well as pull up maps and read remarks on each individual event.

Supervisors are also keeping an eye on monitors situated high in the room for all to see.

It’s a real time view of what’s going on from the call-takers perspective.

“Every call taker in blue is on an active emergency call at this point. The supervisor can look up and see how long they’ve been on a call,” Brown said.

They’re watching out for those longer times that are flagged in yellow and red.

“And if they’ve been on a call an extended amount of time they can go and see if that call taker needs any assistance,” Brown said.

It’s a complex consolidated center with many moving parts that must run with swift precision by only half the needed staff to handle the workload.

Police Chief Kasmar said leaders continue to work on improving response times to meet the goals, but he has one request for anyone making a 911 call.

“If you’re in crisis and you need us, we’re going to be there for you, but when you’re not, please don’t make 911 the first call,” Kasmar said.

The center is actively recruiting.

We’ll keep you updated on any significant progress.

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