Austin 911 call center seeing more calls, longer waits


by ASHLEY GOUDEAU / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT McKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @AshleyG_KVUE

Posted on January 10, 2014 at 6:57 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 10 at 7:12 PM

AUSTIN -- Making sure 911 phone calls get answered can be a matter of life and death.

"I think there's a definite level of stress that goes along on both sides of that phone call," said Austin Police Department assistant chief Brian Manley. 

Call takers at the APD Emergency Communications Call Center have the goal of answering 90 percent of 911 calls in 10 seconds or less.

According to communications center records, in 2012 call takers met their goal an average of 97 percent of the time. From January to July of 2013, call takers met their goal an average of 94 percent of the time.

From August to November 2013, that number started to drop. Call takers met their goal 89.99 percent of the time in August, 90.09 percent in September, 86.23 percent in October and 91.80 percent in November. It took 21 seconds to one minute to answer the majority of the calls that weren't answered in 10 seconds or less.

Austin Public Safety Commission Vice Chair Mike Levy said what is not reflected in that data is which calls were answered by a person, and which ones were answered by an answering machine that told the caller to wait.

"They love using the average," Levy said. "The average is not important if you've been on hold for five minutes and your house is on fire, or daddy's on the phone with a heart attack."

"We are pleased that 23 of the last 24 months, we have met or exceeded the national standards. However, that doesn't mean a lot to the person who waited two minutes for that call, so we are always looking for ways to improve our staffing," Manley said. 

Each day, between 70 and 100 people move to Austin, so the number of 911 calls is increasing with the population. However, there has not been a net increase in the number of call takers and dispatchers in 10 years.

"[That's] a decade going without an increase in the number of 911 call takers, even though the city has grown exponentially," said Levy. 

Police officials said adding more call takers is a priority, but they have to balance that with other department and city needs, because taxpayer dollars only go so far.

It's also a challenge to get qualified people to apply for the positions.

Most are hired on as part-time initially, making between $14 and $15 an hour. Williamson County hires full-time call takers at a little more than $16 an hour. Other tech companies in Austin pay more and generally have calls that are less stressful in nature.

Austin police are in the process of completing a market study to determine what pay rates should be. The next time new call center positions could be added will be during budget negotiations for fiscal year 2014-2015.