When community leader Ma Kaing was struck and killed by a stray bullet the night of July 15, at least seven calls were made directly and indirectly to Denver's 911 center in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. According to a CBS4 investigation, every one of the seven callers was put on hold before speaking to a live call-taker.
Most of the callers spent at least three minutes on hold before getting through to an actual person.
"No delay on any 911 call is okay," said Andrew Dameron, Denver's Director of Emergency Communications.
Kaing, 47, wasoutside her apartment complex. The random bullet was apparently fired from a park across the street.
Denver authorities say the shot was detected by the cities' ShotSpotter technology, and an officer was immediately dispatched and was at the scene within five minutes of being dispatched. They say paramedics arrived within the next minute.
Kaing, a mother of four, did not survive. While first responders arrived within minutes due to the Shotspotter system, the delays encountered by 911 callers highlight the ongoing problems plaguing Denver's 911 system and other 911 systems around the nation.
According to the CBS4 Investigation, three calls regarding the shooting came into Denver's 911 center, but the callers were on hold hearing a recorded message from 49 seconds up to three minutes and 13 seconds. Because of other callers proximity to Aurora, four calls went through the Aurora 911 center and were handed off to Denver. Of those four calls between 11:28 p.m. and 11:31 p.m., one was on hold hearing the recording for three minutes and 50 seconds; another was put on hold for three minutes and 27 seconds; another held for three minutes; and the fourth call was on hold for a minute and a half.
Dameron said "in an ideal world, zero seconds" is how long callers would be on hold. He said that was not the case due to a busy Friday night, increasing call volumes during the summer, and increasing violent crime rates along with the primary culprit: a manpower shortage in 911 centers.
He said Denver's 911 center is authorized to have 93 call takers but currently only has 68, and of those, only 53 are cleared to work on their own. Consequently, Denver is well outside of national standards for answering 911 calls.
Dameron said his agency aims to answer 90% of 911 calls within 10 seconds. In June, he said his call center only met that mark 49% of the time. He told CBS4 his agency lost personnel during the pandemic and "The Great Resignation." Recruiting efforts since then have lagged.
"It's going to take a lot more people," said Dameron. He said his agency moved to streamline the process for hiring and training new employees, is increasing its capacity to train new call-takers, is allowing some non-emergency call takers to work from home.
"We've got to do everything we possibly can," said Dameron. With call volumes increasing during the summer months, and Dameron saying "we're seeing a huge increase in violent crime, the number of shootings and stabbings, it's really gone up," it seems unlikely the hold times for 911 callers will decrease in the near future.
Tina Buneta, who manages Aurora's 911 center, says the hold times for callers are agonizing.
"Understandably, in a time of emergency, its frustrating," said Buneta. "Time stands still and that (recording) is probably not what you want to hear. Being on hold three to four minutes is too long and not acceptable."
She says her call center is also out of compliance with national standards for answering 911 calls and says, "I don't know where the applicants went."
Buneta said she is authorized to have 91 call-takers, but now has only 74. Of the death of Ma Kaing, Buneta said, "This is just a tragic and terrible loss and it breaks our hearts."
Denver police have not publicly identified a suspect in the case nor made an arrest.
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