Life on the Line: 911 wait times cause concern in Portland

According to the director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), in 2018 most 911 calls were being answered in about 10 seconds.
Published: Oct. 4, 2023 at 10:07 AM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - According to the director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), in 2018 most 911 calls were being answered in about 10 seconds. Now, that is far from the case.

BOEC director, Bob Cozzie, says the average wait time currently before you can even talk to a dispatcher when calling 911 is 50 seconds.

One local family shares their story of dealing with these wait times in 2022 while the life of their loved one was hanging in the balance.

On April 7, 2022, Robert Van Pelt died of a heart attack in his home in Portland. According to his family, he was suffering from congestive heart failure and diabetes. His wife, Candace Iron Hawk and daughter, Morgan Van Pelt, were there that day and had just left to take Morgan’s younger sister to a softball game.

“He was cooking dinner and we were all excited because our nieces and nephews were coming over and he was really excited about that,” said Van Pelt. “And we kind of just walked out the door and I was like, ‘I love you, bye.’”

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But when they returned after the game that evening, they found Robert Van Pelt unconscious.

“I had actually walked right past him, and then when I walked back again, something caught my eye and I looked down and saw him on the floor,” said Iron Hawk.

It then became a race to get help complicated by a frustrating delay, with both Van Pelt and Iron Hawk trying to call for an ambulance.

“I called 911, and it put me on a hold where it was like, ‘someone will be with you shortly, please don’t hang up,’ and I was freaking out,” said Van Pelt. “I hung up, and then I called back again.”

According to BOEC call records, two calls were made at about 6:15 p.m. that evening from Morgan Van Pelt and Candace Iron Hawk, which the two of them say they disconnected after being told they were being placed on hold. Records show a third call from them was received a minute later at 6:16 p.m. that evening and placed in the 911 queue, and answered by a dispatcher at 6:19 p.m., a grand total of about four minutes before actually talking to a 911 dispatcher.

“Traumatizing is a good way to say it, I was horrified, actually,” said Iron Hawk. “I didn’t know it was even possible to be put on hold for 911.”

At BOEC in Portland, Director Bob Cozzie says increased call volume in the last few years, integrating new technology for triaging medical calls, and staffing issues have all contributed to increased call wait time.

“We saw the peak of our wait times really last year and the previous year,” he said. “There’s a number of reasons for that: we had the pandemic, we had protests, riots, all of that increased our call volume.”

Cozzie says the impact of this was huge on his bureau.

“We experienced a lot of burnout with our staff,” he said. “We also implemented a new technology for medical and fire call processing, so there was a learning curve for that.”

Cozzie says currently, it’s on average about a 50-second wait time for someone calling 911 in Portland to reach a dispatcher. Cozzie says he’s not OK with this, but says things are improving.

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“911, in my opinion, shouldn’t have any wait,” he said. “Our goal is to get to a point where we’re meeting national standards for 911 call answering, and that’s answering 95% of our calls on 911 within 20 seconds, that’s our goal. I personally want to see that down to 10 seconds, and that’s pretty close to where we were back in 2018.”

Cozzie also says one of the keys to reducing 911 call wait times is facilitating the training and certification of more dispatchers. He says BOEC is funded for 136 dispatchers, but currently has about 25 vacancies right now, with 50 new hires going through training, which takes about a year and a half to complete. Cozzie added the bureau is also piloting new artificial intelligence technology on its nonemergency dispatch line, to ease some of calls flooding 911 dispatchers. Announced back in June, this technology determines if people calling the nonemergency line actually need to be connected to a 911 dispatcher, or get transferred to a different service in the city.

But for Candace Iron Hawk and Morgan Van Pelt, the pain of losing their husband and father has caused them to lose faith in calling 911 altogether.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in them now,” said Iron Hawk. “My thought is, if I needed to do something, I guess my first thought wouldn’t be to call 911. Now, my first thought would be, ‘What can I do?’”