A new report published Wednesday reveals that for more than a decade, Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications misstated how long it took dispatchers to answer 911 calls.
The bureau manages the biggest 911 dispatch hub in Oregon, serving the Portland Police Bureau, Portland Fire and Rescue, and the Gresham Police Department, among other agencies.
The bureau has struggled to hire and retain dispatchers. In spite of its staffing problems, the bureau has reported it promptly answers close to 100 percent of its 911 calls within 20 seconds — averaging just one second to answer.
To Portland’s Ombudsman Margie Solinger, the bureau’s reported wait times didn’t make sense.
“They just seemed too good to be true. And so I started asking a lot of questions about how they arrived at those numbers,” she said.
What Solinger found was that because of a technological glitch, the bureau wasn’t factoring in the hold time for people who call 911 from cellphones.
The glitch stems from the fact that in 2004, the bureau acquired a system known as the Reno Solution. It uses the program to screen out accidental pocket-dials from cellphones — a major problem for emergency dispatch centers across the nation.
The Reno Solution dramatically reduced the number of accidental calls sent to dispatchers, but it also had unintended consequences, including preventing the city’s Bureau of Technology Services from accurately tracking call hold times for cellphones.
Most people call 911 from mobile phones, and the glitch skewed the bureau’s data to look much better than it was.
Solinger said the bureau has now fixed the technical problem and is collecting accurate data, which shows that on average people wait 23 seconds before reaching a dispatcher.
“If it takes them a long time to answer, that means it's also taking them a long time to dispatch help,” she said. “When people are calling 911 and they need medical or fire or a police response, they expect that help to come quickly.”
The ombudsman’s report notes that the new, accurate data shows the bureau is failing to meet standards established by the National Emergency Number Association. Those standards require 90 percent of emergency calls to be answered within 10 seconds. The bureau answers less than 30 percent of its calls within that time.
The bureau’s director, Lisa St. Helen, said the ombudsman’s report is, on the whole, accurate and helpful.
“There is no way that we are performing at the level that we need to be at right now,” St. Helen said.
She said ideally the bureau would have 118 staff people. She currently has 88 staff.
St. Helen pointed out that the 23-second average wait time includes outlier events, for example, freeway accidents that can generate dozens of redundant calls within just a few minutes.
In those cases, she said, longer wait times don’t correspond to a delay in dispatching first responders to an incident.
She also defended her own record at the Bureau of Emergency Communications.
St. Helen has been interim director of the city’s 911 dispatch center for just two months. She was promoted after the bureau’s previous director retired.
She noted that she had independently discovered the data problem Soligner's report describes when she was working as the agency’s operations manager in 2015.
In November, while looking into a complaint from a citizen who'd been put on hold, St. Helen discovered that due to Reno Solution the bureau was using incomplete data to calculate 911 wait times.
St. Helen said the same day she notified her supervisors.
She provided OPB a copy of an email she sent to the chief of staff for then-City Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversaw the Bureau of Emergency Communications at the time.
“I wanted to write you directly as there has been a significant misunderstanding that has been ongoing for quite a number of years,” she wrote.
St. Helen went on to explain the bureau’s call-screening technology had led it to lose the ability to track hold times for cellphone calls.
“All call hold times reported at any time in the past as they related to cellphone calls have been incorrect,” she wrote. “I knew as soon as I learned it, that yourself, my Director and the Commissioner would want to know.”
In an interview, St. Helen said she worked nonstop at the time to develop a fix for the technological glitch.
“I was very disturbed that we had been reporting inaccurate data," she said.
St. Helen said she could not explain why the bureau continued to publicly report inaccurate data, including during a recent City Council budget session, after she had flagged the problem.
She said she welcome’s the ombudsman’s recommendation that the City Council strengthen external oversight of the bureau.
“I welcome oversight from anybody who wants to put their hand in the water,” she said. “It takes somebody from the outside to say, that doesn’t make sense.”