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Mpls. Mayor Responds To WCCO's 911 Investigation

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Rules are changing at Minneapolis's 911 center after a WCCO-TV Investigation found some callers waiting minutes to get through.

Raymond Callahan's wife tried twice to reach an operator last week when her husband suffered a heart attack. Her second call took more than two minutes to answer.

Callahan died Thursday morning.

WCCO-TV has been trying for a week to talk to Mayor Betsy Hodges about 911 delays and the Callahan case. Thursday night, she posted on her blog that her heart aches for his family and added, "We are carefully reviewing this situation so that we can learn from it and improve."

City leaders Thursday expressed sympathy for his family. But operators at the 911 center worry others may not get help as quickly as they should, and they're asking for more staff.

Heather Hunt, the city's director of emergency communications, says they're in the midst of modernizing the system, through training and current staffing is safe. But behind the scenes, WCCO-TV found changes are already being made.

A dispatcher for 30 years, Robin Jones put her job on the line to send a warning about what she says could continue to happen if staffing levels stay the way they are at Minneapolis 911.

Now, she's sent a letter to the mayor and local newspapers in another attempt to make a change. In part it reads:

"I was dismayed by your dismissive response. For you to boldly and inaccurately state the facts were manipulated for sensationalism breaks my heart," Jones said. "Critical events do not make appointments for our peak staffing periods."

Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon wanted to break city hall's silence since our investigation.

"I don't think the things that you've talked about show that we're doing it as good as we should be, and I think as good as we will be soon," Gordon said.

As vice chair of the city's public safety committee, Gordon is well aware of a massive hiring and cross-training effort underway at the 911 center.

Operators and dispatchers are being trained to work both positions by 2017, but the training has led to fewer operators on the floor.

After seeing our stories about emergencies taking minutes to answer, Gordon promised to take a harder look at the training process.

"Getting the 911 response is one of the most basic things that we need to be doing as a city," he said.

All along, the city has told WCCO-TV that its staffing is set by demand. And on average, calls have been answered in seven seconds since the beginning of the year.

Still, in the last two weeks 911 management has made a list of changes, blocking out break times operators and dispatchers are able to take, telling employees they must send out a message every time they get up so everyone knows they're not there to take a call.

Managers have even moved the water cooler just feet from the call floor.

Before those changes, we asked the city's 911 director why the center was often running two-people below its own set minimum, which is laid out in its daily schedule.

Now, that paperwork's been changed from "minimum" to "service level goal," and the hours are left blank for the most part.

And after we went undercover on two different shifts, the call center's visitor policy changed, and signs were posted saying recording and photography are prohibited.

Heather Hunt told WCCO-TV on Thursday that some employees don't want to learn new skills. In a statement, she added, "We have expectations that while employees are on the clock, they are doing their job, answering 911 calls as quickly as possible."

Jones doesn't think any changes they've made will go far enough until they add more people to pick up calls on those overnight and early morning hours. Now, she's launching her own personal fight against a mayor she expected more from.

"I recall that one of your campaign commitments was to make the city safer. If you truly mean that maybe you could work with us to make that a reality instead of just another unfulfilled campaign promise," Jones said.

After calling our first investigation "sensationalism" meant to "scare people," the mayor is now directly addressing what we found in a two-page blog post Thursday night.

She says the city has spent three years developing and implementing the new, modernized call center. But she says "as common-sense as this new staffing model is, change is difficult for some people."

Because of our reporting in the last two weeks, these issues will be added to the city council's upcoming public safety committee meeting on March 19 at 1:30 p.m. in council chamber 317.

In a statement released Thursday night, City Council President Barb Johnson expressed her sympathy to the Callahan family. She also wrote that Minneapolis is dedicated to high-quality emergency services.

"Nine-one-one provides a critically important service in our community and we are 100-percent committed to responding to every emergency call quickly and thoroughly," Johnson said.

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