Report: Portland 911 call center reporting inaccurate call respo - KPTV - FOX 12

Report: Portland 911 call center reporting inaccurate call response times

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A new report released Wednesday from the city ombudsman’s office said that 911 hold times in Multnomah County are far worse than thought and have been misreported for more than a decade.

The Bureau of Emergency Communications or BOEC is the 911 center that covers the county, and Portland City Ombudsman Margie Sollinger contends that for years now the bureau has been reporting it answers 911 calls very quickly.

Following an investigation, though, she said that is not the case and that something should have been done about the issue years ago.

“We have this expectation that when you call 911 you’ll talk to a real person and that help will be on its way as fast as possible,” she said. “And what we’re seeing is that is not happening in many, many, many cases.”

In her report presented to city commissioners, Sollinger said the problem was a technological fix that was put in place in 2004 to weed out misdials. An unintended consequence of that fix, though, was that the wait times weren’t accurately calculated.

In one case, for example, a real call to 911 made from a cell phone last year took nearly nine minutes to answer but was reported as being answered in one second.

“It took one second for the call taker to pick it up once it was assigned to their desk, but it missed all the time leading up to that point while they were waiting on hold,” Sollinger explained.

The Bureau of Emergency was made aware of the issue after a house fire in May 2016 resulted in the death of an 84-year-old woman. Some neighbors said they had attempted to call 911, but could not get through to dispatchers.

Under the existing system, 911 callers must push a button or make a noise to get through to a dispatcher, and when none are available, calls are placed into a queue. It is at that point that critics of the system say many people hang up or are disconnected and dispatchers are supposed to call them back.

In an earlier report issued in December, Sollinger said the 911 screening system in place did not record phone numbers in those cases, so operators had no way to call those people back. The numbers disappeared from the system and dispatchers had no reason to suspect they were not returning everyone’s calls, she reported.

It was later discovered that 18,482 calls to 911 were not connected to operators in 2015.

In the new report released Wednesday, Sollinger said that although BOEC was well aware of the screening system error, it was still reporting nearly all Portland 911 calls were being answered within 20 seconds.

“This report does not offer an explanation for why the Bureau reported inaccurate numbers, but there is evidence that the Bureau continued to report the inaccurate numbers even after Bureau leadership learned of the problem in 2015.” she wrote in her report.

Mayor Ted Wheeler called the situation a failure of leadership and accountability and questioned how bureau officials could have considered the earlier reports as accurate.

“To have that interpreted as one second, I don’t know what planet you have to be from to assume that is the right answer to the question, ‘About how long did it take to answer the phone?’” he said Wednesday. “It defies common sense.”

Wheeler praised the new interim director of BOEC, Lisa St. Helen, though. She has only been on the job for two months, and while she said she doesn’t know why the mistake wasn’t caught sooner, she was equally concerned.

“It is perplexing to me, and I have to assume, I can only assume, it had to have been gross oversight,” St. Helen said.

Rob Wheaton represents the Oregon American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the union representing BOEC workers. Wheaton said 911 dispatchers starting noticing a discrepancy years ago, but their concerns were never addressed.

He said the technology that created the problem is only one issue, but severe under-staffing must also be fixed.

“It’s something that we’ve been aware of for years,” Wheaton noted. “You don’t really notice there’s a staffing problem with 911 until you have to pick up the phone and call 911 and have to hold.”

In one case, Wheaton said a 911 caller waited 25 minutes, and while that’s certainly not the norm, calls can only be answered when there are dispatchers on the other end of the line.

“The Bureau’s staffing shortage is already compromising service levels,” Sollinger added in her new report. “Contrary to the Bureau’s assertions, it is performing well below accepted standards.”

There is good news, though. A temporary fix is already in place, so data on 911 calls that are being made now is accurate. An additional 30 dispatchers are also in training, though that process takes up to 18 months to complete.

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