By Brian Maass and Mark Ackerman
DENVER (CBS4) – Thousands of callers to Denver’s 911 system in the last year have been placed on hold for more than a minute and a half — sometimes as long as three minutes — before reaching a live operator, according to a CBS4 investigation.
“As much as we don’t want that to be the reality, the reality today is that’s the truth,” said Athena Butler, director of Denver’s 911 system.
A CBS4 Investigation reviewed thousands of calls to Denver 911 between April 2016 and March 2017 to see how quickly calls were being answered. In many cases, they were not being initially answered at all, instead, callers have been put on hold getting a recorded message which thanks them for calling Denver 911 and asks them to continue holding.
In the past year, CBS4 found 17,543 callers to 911 waited at least a minute for someone to answer. Exactly how much longer than a minute callers waited is unknown, because Denver 911 only retains detailed call information for two weeks.
CBS4 sampled a two week period from April 1 through April 15 and found that every day during that period, at least one call, including a shooting, a burglary and a family violence incident, took 97 seconds or more to answer.
Denver 911 administrators say that ideally, they would like 95 percent of calls answered within 16 seconds, but operators are coming up short of that goal, answering 83 percent of calls in that 16 second timeframe.
911 call takers also missed their goal of answering 99 percent of calls within 40 seconds. Over the past year, 91 percent of calls were answered within 40 seconds.
Those are not just abstract numbers to Scott and Stacy Vaughn of southeast Denver. Last month, on April 4, their one-and-a-half-year-old son Christopher stopped breathing. Scott Vaughn immediately called 911 for help.
“I was on hold for God knows how long. I’m like,”God, we need somebody to help us now,” said Vaughn.
His call for emergency help was put on hold for 124 seconds — a full two minutes and four seconds without getting a 911 operator.
“It was the scariest moment,” said Stacy Vaughn. “I had nobody, that was scary. I think it’s unacceptable. I think you don’t call 911 to be put on hold, you call 911 because you are having an emergency and you need response. … It was very terrifying.”
Butler says “the reality today is there are times when people are on hold. There is always concern when somebody is on hold and they are looking to get immediate help.”
Butler emphasizes that the vast majority of 911 calls are being answered quickly. But the outliers found in the CBS4 investigation are cause for concern.
“I sympathize with anyone who is on hold in a dire emergency. We are not sitting still on this,” he said.
Butler blames the 911 hold times on a host of factors. She says call center staffing is down and with job vacancies come longer hold times. Beyond that, Butler says 911 call volumes have been steadily growing. Additionally she characterizes Denver’s 911 system as a “legacy” system with flaws that exacerbate problems. She says Denver’s 911 center in Congress Park is too small, and that a pending move to a larger facility should provide more space and allow for more operators to answer calls.
“This is not an overnight fix. With a government budget we are all dealing with the same pot of money.”
But the problem could get worse this summer when call volumes increase, hold times are likely to increase, too.
Last August, 3,132 calls, or six percent of all 911 calls took more than 100 seconds for an operator to answer the phone. Butler says she’s been planning for the “Summer of ’17” by adding staffing to help with the expected increase in calls.
As for Christopher Vaughn, as his Dad was on hold, he started breathing again. When the family finally got a 911 operator on the line, first responders were at their home within minutes.
Christopher is better now, but the Vaughns hope no one else has to go through the terror they felt.
“It was the scariest moment,” said Stacy. “I had nobody.”
“A matter of seconds could be somebody’s life,” said Scott.