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911 Calls In Denver On Hold: 'It Was Frightening' Says Caller

DENVER (CBS4) - Denver's 911 system is out of compliance with nationally recognized standards for answering calls as thousands of callers are finding themselves on hold when they call in to report an emergency.

Andrew Dameron, Denver's Director of Emergency Communications, said "Obviously no one in the Department of Safety wants anyone to end up on hold when they call 911."

A CBS4 investigation found it's happening frequently.

In September, the average 911 caller in Denver was put on hold for 23 seconds and more than 1,000 emergency callers, or 2.5% of actual emergency calls, were put on hold for at least two minutes.

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"The possibility that even one person could wind up not getting the help they need in the time they need it absolutely makes me feel uncomfortable," said Dameron.

NENA, the National Emergency Number Association, calls for 90% of 911 calls to be answered within 10 seconds, and 95% of calls to be answered within 20 seconds. Dameron said Denver is currently not in alignment with those national standards.

Karen Schuster learned that firsthand last month. As she was out walking her dog in Denver's Skyland neighborhood on a weekday at about 9 a.m., two cars collided in a nearby intersection.

"I turned around, and there they were," said Schuster. Airbags had deployed and the cars were blocking the intersection. Schuster called 911, but did not reach an operator, instead getting a recorded message that said all call takers were busy and asked her to remain on hold.

"I was angry because I think this is a basic service that we should be having here in Denver as part of an emergency response," said Schuster. "It was frightening not being able to speak to a human being."

Schuster said she hung up and called back again, only to again get the recorded message.

"You need to be able to tell the police where to go, where the emergencies are," she said.

Another caller on the scene eventually got through to a call taker and first responders arrived, said Schuster. Her situation is emblematic of a familiar problem; too many 911 calls and not enough staff on hand to manage the volume.

It is a nationwide problem acutely impacting Denver, created by a confluence of factors:

  • Low staffing. Denver currently has 61 call takers. The 911 center considers full staffing to be 93 call takers.
  • Historically high call volume. Dameron said while staffing is at its lowest since 2016, the city is seeing its highest call volume in five years with an average of more than 181,000 calls per month between May and August of this year.

Dameron told CBS4 many call takers simply left their jobs during the pandemic, burned out from the high stress and low paying jobs. He said pay has recently been increased from $20 per hour to $24 per hour to try to attract more employees and reduce a high turnover rate.

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Public safety administrators say they continue to be plagued by non-emergency callers tying up 911 lines. They urge those callers to call the non-emergency number at 720-913-2000.

Dameron said 60% of Denver's 911 calls are for non-urgent matters like intersections missing stop signs or citizens calling to report potholes. He says 911 should only be used for a crime in progress, to save a life or report a fire.

Non-emergency callers can also utilize Denver's pocketgov for non-emergency issues, call 311 or navigate the Denver Police Department website.

Dameron advises 911 callers not to hang up in frustration because if they call back, their calls end up at the back of the line and tie up even more resources.

Schuster said for her there is just one bottom line, "I should not be on hold for five to 10 minutes while nobody is answering the phone."

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