Think Out Loud

Hold times for emergency calls in Portland remain long

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Nov. 28, 2022 11:20 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 29

This study is the first of it’s kind to highlight disparity within the ambulance system. But experts think similar disparities are at work everywhere, from schools to the criminal justice system. It’s just that they can be easily illustrated in health care industry, where data is so widely available.

File photo of an ambulance. Hold times for 911 calls in Portland are far longer than the national standard.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB


Hold times for 911 calls in Portland are far longer than the national standard, which specifies that 90% of calls should be answered within 15 seconds. According to the city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications, only 35% of calls were answered within that window last month. The bureau wants to hire more dispatchers and has begun using a system of automatic call backs to numbers that hang up. It also plans to launch an automated answering system for non-emergency calls in the new year.

Joining us to talk about possible fixes for long emergency call wait times is Bob Cozzie, director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Hold times for 911 calls in Portland are far longer than the national standard. Best practices say that 90% of calls should be answered within 15 seconds, but according to the city only 35% of calls were answered within that window last month. That is despite the city’s focus over the last year on trying to reduce wait times. So what are the short and longer term fixes at this point? Bob Cozzie joins us to talk about this. He is the director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Bob Cozzie: Thank you, Dave. I appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Miller: So as I noted, according to your bureau’s most recent report, only 35% of 911 calls were answered within 15 seconds last month. In the big picture, what’s happening?

Cozzie: The big picture is a really dramatic increase in 911 calls. We do a comparison of month-to-month from the same month of the previous year and in the two previous years. So going all the way back to 2019, there has been anywhere from a 20% increase in 911 calls in a month to upwards of a 35% increase in 911 calls. That’s only part of the problem. Many professions across the country and even worldwide are experiencing the great resignation as a lot of folks are calling it; and, 911 here in Portland as well as across the country is facing something similar where a lot of call takers and dispatchers—primarily due to burnout and fatigue–have chosen to leave the profession. And that kind of creates a deeper hole for us as we’re trying to dig ourselves out of the dilemma that we’re in.

Miller: To go back to the first thing you mentioned, which is the increase in calls, as you noted, that goes back three years or so. Over the last just year, has the increase continued or it’s just that it hasn’t gone down to, say 2019 levels?

Cozzie: Yes, 2019 is what I would consider our last normal year and 2020, they started going up; 2021 dramatically increased and now in 2022 we continued seeing an increase for about the first half of this calendar year and now we’re at a leveling off period, even a slight decline in 911 calls by comparison. But it still does not bring us to the numbers or the levels we were at in 2019. What we’re facing now, I think, is the new normal and we’re trying to figure out really what our staffing model should look like with this new higher level of 911 calls that we’re taking.

Miller: I want to turn to staffing because that’s, as you noted, a hugely important piece of this, but let’s stick with the input side of this as opposed to the response for a second. When we say that 35% of calls are responded to within some particular period of time, I’m curious what exactly that means? Does that mean that that’s when a caller first talks to a human being?

Cozzie: Yes. Really what that means is that 35% of our calls are being answered within that national standard. Honestly, what we’re trying to do is to surpass that standard. And my personal goal is that we’re able to answer all of our 911 calls within about 10 seconds and that definitely surpasses that standard. When we think about call wait times, there are averages that we look at. In any given week, I get updates from our data analytics team. And the past week, for example, we were averaging about 44 seconds across the board for our 911 wait times. Now that doesn’t mean the non-emergency number because our non-emergency line is something that we also answer. And sometimes wait times for that can be a lot longer, 30 minutes or 45 minutes, because our primary focus, our mission, is to answer 911 calls first.

Miller: And when you say non-emergency, those are people who called 911 and then when they’re asked in an automated way it is an emergency, if they say “no,” then they get diverted to a different queue?

Cozzie: No. That’s when people physically call our 10 digit non-emergency number reporting something that isn’t an emergency.

Miller: Okay.

Cozzie: Oftentimes it is a cold burglary, a case where maybe a burglary occurred overnight, there’s no suspect there. It’s not an emergency right now in the moment. So in those cases they’ll call our non-emergency line. But what a lot of folks don’t know is that our call takers are the same people answering 911 and non-emergency. So really the focus is on answering 911 calls as quickly as possible which, because of the increase in 911 calls, our non-emergency calls also have to wait.

Miller: Why should someone call the 10 digit non-emergency number that goes to the same dispatchers and could potentially take them away from emergency calls given that there is a non-emergency 311 line–that it’s not 24 hours–but it is staffed now Monday through Friday, if I’m not mistaken, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.? Why should anyone call another non-emergency number?

Cozzie: That’s a great question. I’ll answer in a couple of ways. The first piece is that we answer 911 and non-emergencies for the entire county, not just the city of Portland. And the 311 program is an asset by all means. They’re a city of Portland’s office that is expanding service into all of Multnomah County.

Miller: So into say Troutdale or other parts that are in the county, but not normally served by city services?

Cozzie: Exactly. And, right now if someone is in Troutdale or Gresham or unincorporated Multnomah County, calls 311, they’ll get a recording if they’re calling from a cell phone saying that that service is not available. But we are working with the 311 program as well as the cell phone providers to make sure that cell towers are programmed, not just in the city of Portland for 311, but that they’re programmed countywide. It’s just taken a little bit longer than we really wanted it to. And right now, direct 311 service is not available countywide.

Miller: But just in terms of the city, the biggest population center is served by this number. And this was explicitly promised that this would alleviate some of the issues you’re talking about. To what extent has that happened? I mean, can you actually quantify the extent to which 311 has lessened the burden on 911 operators?

Cozzie: At this point. I don’t have specific information on that, but I’m certain the 311 program manager would have that detailed information. But I can tell you that during business hours, the hours that you had mentioned earlier, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m, Monday through Friday, 311 is accessed a lot more. We still have pretty significant wait times on non-emergency. And through community education, public education campaigns, we’ll be working with the 311 program to hopefully raise awareness that 311 does exist. The 311 program has started advertising with TriMet for example. And they’re also looking at other ways to get the word out. And unfortunately, like I said, it hasn’t gone out county wide because of the constraints on the system right now.


Miller: The last time you were on, you noted that historically there had been a kind of seasonal pattern in terms of 911 calls: an increase in the summer and then a decrease when the weather turns cold and rainy. But you said, last year, that that seems to be changing and call volume was staying higher than previously in the winter. Has that new pattern held?

Cozzie: Yes. We are still getting a lot more calls than we did in the past. When we think about daily call volume back in 2019, this time of year we would be receiving around 1,400 calls [to] 911 on any given day. For example, this past week we had multiple days with 1,600, almost 1,700, or more calls in a particular day. So 300 more calls is certainly very challenging for any agency to absorb on any given day. And that’s just wintertime. Summertime, we have well over 2,000 calls every day just to 911.

Miller: Okay, so let’s turn squarely to staffing. Starting with just the basics, what do staffing levels look like right now in terms of funded positions and actual human bodies doing those jobs?

Cozzie: We have 37 vacancies right now and we’re actually recruiting right now. We have our recruitment open for another week. But what we found in past recruitment, and I mentioned the great resignation of the job market in general, our recruitments most of last year were not fantastic. We would end up with relatively small academies, small hire groups, which definitely is not capable of helping us dig out of the hole that we’re in. But what we did for our most recent recruitments kind of changed our focus. We had targeted outreach, we sent out press releases, we had more media attention and our last recruitment before this current one, we were able to basically fill an academy and that academy is scheduled to begin in February. We have 16 seats in that academy and we have 27 people that are going through the background process. Now our current recruitment is for an academy that starts in May and so far, as of yesterday, we have 294 applications for trainee positions and another 32 applications for lateral positions for people with dispatch experience. So with those types of numbers, I would expect that our May academy would also be a full academy of 16 people.

Miller: So that seems like you have people six months from now or so who are going to be entering this pipeline, but how long does it take once they enter it before they could actually be fully ready to do these jobs?

Cozzie: I’m glad you asked that because of all of our staffing right now, we have 62 certified dispatchers out of 130 some that we are funded for.

Miller: You have fewer than half of the people that you’re funded for are actually doing the job right now?

Cozzie: Correct. And we have about a third of our budget staffing is in various stages of training already, anywhere from getting close to certifying in police dispatch, certifying in fire dispatch certifying in 911. And this process does take quite a while. When we look at our current academy that we have running right now, we would expect those folks in this academy to certify in a 911 call taking within about six months. So six months from now we’ll have more call takers. And then in that same time frame, all of the other dispatchers that are in the training pipeline will be progressing through their training. And the way our training program works is after the academy they go into on-the-job training, learning 911 and non-emergency call answering and certifying that discipline. Once they’re done in call taking as certified call takers, then they go into police dispatch training. They’re not done with their training. Now, during police dispatch training, they train for about half the time at the police net or the police position and the other half of the time they’re call takers. So they do count as call takers, just not full time call takers. And then once they certify in police dispatch, which takes another anywhere from six months to 10 months depending on how much training we’re able to provide them, then they go into fire dispatch training and certify there . . .

Miller: If I could just interrupt for one second. What does it mean to have people who are taking 911 calls in Multnomah County who haven’t been certified to send in police officers for certain situations or to to send in folks from the Fire and Rescue Bureau? Does that limit their ability to actually serve Portlanders?

Cozzie: Oh, not at all. What it does is it allows them to be call takers. The call takers are trained in all of the disciplines in terms of getting information from callers. So whether it be a police emergency, a medical emergency or a fire emergency, when they’re certified as call takers, they’re qualified to take that information and put it in the computer system. Once they go into dispatch training that furthers their learning, it furthers their knowledge base, certainly, but it changes their skill set as well from only a call taker, to being able to dispatch police, fire or medical or Portland Street Response to different calls for service.

Miller: And that means, as one person, they could both get the information, figure out what needs to be done and then send in the people who are most equipped to respond?

Cozzie: Yeah, that’s correct. Call takers are very good. Our call takers are extremely talented in determining the appropriate response. And then across the room, the dispatcher sends the help.

Miller: As you noted, you have fewer than half of the funded positions that are actually filled right now and many people are getting training, many more will be in soon—hopefully be in the pipeline–do you have enough trainers to actually train all these people?

Cozzie: We do now. We recently got approval from the City Council on a couple of things that we are trying to do internally. You mentioned earlier that less than half of our positions are filled. It’s really about 3/4 of our positions that are filled, about half of them are fully certified. About a quarter of our positions are folks that are in various stages of training and then we still have about a quarter of our budgeted staffing that are vacant positions. And that’s what we’re trying to fill.

When we talk about opening up that bottleneck and training, when we don’t have enough trainers and we have too many trainees, oftentimes, the trainees are just sitting observing, they’re sitting waiting there studying. We’re really not getting good training time for them. But recently City Council passed an ordinance that allows us for the remainder of this fiscal year, to pay overtime at the double rate for anyone coming in to help with operations specifically, so that we don’t have to slow down training or cancel training in some cases. And that has resulted in about a threefold increase in the number of training hours that we’re able to provide our trainees. So it’s showing a lot of promise. This is a pilot that we’re testing at this point to see if it really does work. Although we’re using our own resources funded through our budget, it’s really just a vacancy savings that we’re using. We’re not asking for additional money, but we want to be mindful that we’re using that in a responsible way. We also recently increased the incentive for our coaches and trainers so that hopefully we can attract some more coaches into the pool for training.

Miller: What does the pattern look like in terms of the calls that are coming in? I mean, what are the most common emergency calls these days? And has that changed in recent years?

Cozzie: We have what we would consider the normal calls. We have a lot of traffic accident calls that we take, a lot of domestic violence types of events. What we’ve seen a big increase in this past year, past couple of years, really has been fires, certainly fires along the freeway. Those generate dozens and dozens of 911 calls at any given time. And that really taps out the system when those types of events occur. One thing I think we’re all aware of in the city of Portland is the increase in gun violence and shootings. That is something that has dramatically impacted my staff. We take dozens and dozens of calls in some cases related to one shooting. It really depends on where it is located. Oftentimes it’ll be people who are witnesses to a shooting, but then there are dozens of calls that come in with people reporting shots fired.

Miller: Is that helpful? Do you want Portland’s to do that?

Cozzie: I want Portland to call 911 if they have an emergency. And when we have a shooting in the community, that is definitely an emergency. I would expect that we would get those calls. It’s frustrating though because we talk about wait times and that’s really what has led to some of these wait times that we’re talking about. Because when we get this influx of 911 calls, we only have 30 circuits that come into our center. So with that number and if more people are calling than our system can allow, their call gets dropped. They end up in the queue and their call ends up waiting. One thing I want to mention is that if someone does call 911 and they hear the recording that they have called 911, it says do not hang up, and I really request anyone who’s calling 911, even if they think that it may already be handled if they’re reporting a traffic accident or something else that multiple people call for, is don’t hang up because we have to call you back every time. And when we call someone back who has hung up on 911 that takes a call taker out of the ability to answer the 911 queue.

Miller: This is something that we talked about last time: one of the technological fixes was an automated abandoned callback system. In other words, computers would call people who had hung up and then help sort of triage that callback. Is that up and running now and it hasn’t made a difference?

Cozzie: Yes. It is up and running and we implemented that in May. On average it is saving our staff about 40-45 hours in any given month. So it is significant. It’s certainly not the total solution for the problem that we’re in, but every little bit does help.

Miller: Bob Cozzie, thanks very much.

Cozzie: Thank you.

Miller: Bob Cozzie is the director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications.

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