Reaching 911 in Indianapolis can take minutes, not seconds

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INDIANAPOLIS -- When Lona O'Conner's 2-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, collapsed and started shaking uncontrollably, the young mother quickly called 911.

"I was freaking out. I had no idea what was going on, and I was like, 'I need help now!'" she recalls. But to O'Connor's surprise, her call for help was not immediately answered. Instead, she heard a recording message telling her not to hang up.

Lona O'Conner and daughter Kaitlin

"I just sat on hold waiting for someone to help me," O'Conner said. "It seemed like an eternity. I was terrified. I thought I was going to lose my daughter."

As her daughter suffered a fever-induced febrile seizure, O'Conner says she waited nearly six minutes for a Marion County 911 operator to answer her call and to dispatch paramedics. Other families in Indianapolis say they, too, have experienced excruciating delays while waiting for a dispatcher to answer their calls to 911.

An Eyewitness News investigation finds the average wait time when calling 911 in Marion County can be two to three times longer than the accepted national standard -- sometimes meaning callers wait on hold for minutes rather than seconds when seeking help during an emergency. And a critical shortage of dispatchers in the county's Emergency Call Center combined with an increasing number of 911 calls threatens to make the public safety threat even worse.

"Terrible" wait times not uncommon

The Marion County Emergency Call Center received approximately 1.2 million 911 calls last year, making it the busiest emergency call center in Indiana and one of the busiest in the nation, according to Maj. Michael Hubbs of the Marion County Sheriff's Office.

"We experience call [wait] times which are frankly longer than we want," Hubbs told WTHR this summer as a video monitor inside the call center showed several callers waiting for more than 90 seconds to speak with a 911 dispatcher. "There's nothing worse than calling 911 because you have a true life or death emergency and the phone just rings. Every day we fight to answer that call as quickly as we can."

But statistics show 911 calls in Marion County often are not answered quickly enough to meet what is considered an acceptable response rate.

According to the National Emergency Number Association -- an industry trade organization that focuses on 911 policy, technology, operations and education -- 90% of all calls to 911 should be answered within ten seconds and 95% of 911 calls should be answered within twenty seconds. The NENA policy is widely considered the national benchmark for emergency call center.

"The standard is 10 seconds ... because, especially for life critical events such as a heart attack or fire, the less the response time the better the outcome for the person on the other end of the phone," said Chris Carver, NENA's 911 operations director.

Data provided by emergency services in each county from January 1, 2018 to October 30, 2018 unless otherwise noted.

Data obtained by 13 Investigates shows Marion County's Emergency Dispatch Center answers just 63% of its 911 calls within ten seconds -- dramatically short of the national standard. In June and July, dispatchers answered only 71% of calls within twenty seconds.

While NENA standards state only 10% of callers should have to wait longer than ten seconds to reach a 911 dispatcher, the sheriff's office says 10% of the people who called 911 in Marion County in June and July waited 60 seconds or longer to speak to an emergency operator. That means more than 15,000 people calling 911 in Marion County this summer waited at least one minute for their call to be answered, and about two dozen callers waited longer than five minutes to get ahold of 911.

Data also shows Marion County's average 911 call wait time is above the 10-second standard for each month reported so far in 2018:

  • 77,284 calls were answered in January with an average wait time of 13 seconds
  • 67,073 calls were answered in February with an average wait time of 12 seconds
  • 75,320 calls were answered in March with an average wait time of 16 seconds
  • 75,086 calls were answered in April with an average wait time of 17 seconds
  • 77,518 calls were answered in May with an average wait time of 22 seconds
  • 85,063 calls were answered in June with an average wait time of 27 seconds
Lt Col Bart McAtee - Marion County Emergency Dispatch

"27 seconds, that's terrible," admits Lt. Col. Bart McAtee, commander of the Marion County Emergency Dispatch Center. "We take a lot of phone calls here, and there are times when we get so many calls that you're never going to keep up with all of those. But I'll never accept this is the best we can do. I would hope we have no wait times, but that's not realistic."

Keep in mind, the 20+ second wait times reported by the sheriff's office are simply the average amount of time it took thousands of 911 callers to reach a dispatcher during some months. Some callers waited much longer than that.

Seconds turn into minutes

Earlier this year, Shayla Denney and her husband tried calling for police and paramedics as they watched a man get attacked outside their eastside Indianapolis home.

Shayla Denny

"He was being beaten by fist by two guys who were much bigger than he was. I was standing right inside the door when I called 911 and watched it all happen. I remember there was a lot of blood," Denney told WTHR.

Call center records show her call to 911 was not answered for 2 minutes and 58 seconds. By then, the suspects were long gone and the bloodied victim left to get help on his own.

"(He) called 911 and was unable to get through so he ran over to Station 11 and alerted the fire crew of the house fire."

"I was really shocked. When you call 911, you're supposed to get help right away, right?," asked Denney. "That's what I was always taught."

The problem is not new.

In fall 2016, a man living on North Keystone Avenue woke up to find his rented duplex filling with smoke and fire.

An Indianapolis Fire Department incident report says "[he] called 911 and was unable to get though so he ran over to Station 11 and alerted the fire crew of the house fire."

By the time firefighters arrived, the fire had spread quickly and the inside of the home was a total loss.​

McAtee acknowledges residents should not have to run to a fire station to report their own house fire in order to get help.

"We need to answer those calls," he said.

Emergency inside the 911 call center

The sheriffs department admits there is an urgent call for help coming from inside the 911 call center. The facility is now understaffed by more than 30 dispatchers. Due to the shortage, the 106 dispatchers currently working in Marion County are mandated to work overtime. And despite handling more emergency calls than any other call center in the state, Marion County 911 operators make less money -- in some cases, a lot less money -- than their counterparts in surrounding communities.

The starting salary for a 911 operator in Marion County is $31,202. Shelby and Madison counties pay their dispatchers more than $34,000. Hancock County dispatchers make $35,000 in their first year. Johnson and Hamilton counties pay at least $38,000. And the starting salary for dispatchers in Morgan, Hendricks and Boone counties tops $40,000 annually.

Salary data provided by emergency services in each county.

And for dedicated dispatchers who work more than a decade, the pay differential is even more staggering. A Hendricks County 911 operator earns $54,267 in her tenth year of service. A Marion County dispatcher who works the same ten years earns just $34,230 -- roughly two-thirds the salary of a dispatcher working just 20 miles away. Offering higher pay for answering far fewer emergency calls, other counties can easily lure away trained dispatchers from Marion County's Emergency Dispatch Center.

"How does your department compete with that?" 13 Investigates asked McAtee.

"We don't," he replied. "We need to put more people in this room ... and we do everything we can to get people in here, but we just don't get the people to apply."

Inside the same emergency dispatch center, the Indianapolis Fire Department is short on dispatchers too.

"I'm authorized to have 34 positions. I currently have 26," said Jacob Spence, IFD's Emergency Management Battalion Chief. "It does take a toll on them. They have to work overtime more and have to work more hours -- sometimes 20 or 25 days per month instead of 15 [12-hour shifts]. That's a big strain on the staff we have."

The fire department says it rarely experiences wait times when handling 911 calls. But IFD dispatchers do not get 911 calls directly; those calls are first handled by Marion County Emergency Call Center dispatchers, who must transfer each call for fire service to IFD dispatchers sitting in a separate room across the hallway. So any delays in initially answering incoming 911 calls to the call center result in additional time that callers must wait to get help from the fire department.

"When someone calls 911, they first get the sheriff's side in Marion County, so their staffing and our staffing go together," said Spence.

Most Marion County residents do not realize the emergency call center is short staffed and that it could take minutes -- not seconds -- to simply get a 911 dispatcher on the line. Those who have experienced delays first hand say residents in Indiana's most densely populated city deserve better.

"It's ridiculous. Get people in there! They need more people," said O'Connor when she learned of the dispatcher shortage.

"I know it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. Somebody's got to answer the call," added Denney.

911 Call Center wait time board

Mayor says waits "unacceptable"

Supervisors at the sheriff's department believe improving salaries for dispatchers is crucial. Those dispatchers must pass a grueling exam to make sure they are qualified for the job, then undergo months of training before working 12-hour shifts speaking to dozens of callers who are often experiencing traumatic, stressful events.

"I personally think this is the most important job in law enforcement," McAtee told 13 Investigates. "You dial 911, this is where it comes, and if these people don't do their job, you don't get help. I think the salaries here need a drastic raise."

Briefed on WTHR's investigation, Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett said he is willing to examine increased salaries for dispatchers to help improve the city's bloated 911 call wait times.

"We do need to remain competitive in the market, and hopefully more money will be available for more operators and quicker response times," Hogsett said. "This is an issue of dollars and cents and budgeting. I look forward to sitting down with the newly-elected sheriff and rolling up our sleeves and fixing the problem."

The mayor added he is concerned about the impact that 911 wait times is having on public safety. "If I have a loved one or if I'm in need of emergency services, I want that call to be responded to as soon as possible. Any wait time is really unacceptable," he said.

A spokeswoman for the mayor's office told WTHR the city's 2019 budget includes a one-time, 10% salary increase for dispatchers followed by a 2% annual increase for the next two years. That comes after another small raise for dispatchers that took effect in 2017.

The sheriff's office says it's still not enough. "Even with these pay raises, the salaries of the 911 personnel do not reach the level of being competitive with those of contiguous counties," Col. Louis Dezelan told WTHR.

Spiders, fried chicken clogging the system

A severe shortage of 911 dispatchers isn't the only problem causing an increase in call wait times. Dispatchers say they are bombarded daily with non-emergency calls that should not be tying up emergency lines. Last year, the sheriff's office estimates as many as 50% of the 1.2 million calls to the Marion County Emergency Call Center were for non-emergencies.

"It can cost somebody their life. It is a life or death emergency issue," said Hubbs, a sheriff's office supervisor who also handles 911 calls for Marion County. "Somebody's dying and they had to wait for who knows how long to get their phone call answered because some guy before was playing games on the 911 system. It's ridiculous."

An Eyewitness News investigation exposed some of those non-emergency calls earlier this year, including callers who dialed 911 to ask for directions, to report a spider on her ceiling, and to complain that a fast food restaurant served customers in the drive thru line more quickly than inside the store. Dispatchers say the sheer number of non-emergency calls has created an epidemic for the emergency dispatch system.

Call volume data provided by emergency services in each county from January 1, 2018 to October 30, 2018 unless otherwise noted.

"They just call 911 because they don't know any other number to dial and simply don't want to take the time to find out that non-emergency number," Hubbs said. "It's gut-wrenching at times because you know someone is waiting to get through to 911 who really needs help and can't when every second counts."

The sheriff's office says Marion County residents who need help for issues that are not life threatening and that are not an immediate risk to safety or property should call 311 from their cell phones or 317-327-3811 from landline phones for help.

Dispatchers also say residents who call 911 and initially hear a recording -- meaning all 911 dispatchers are busy on other calls -- should remain on the line. Since calls are answered in the order they are received, those who choose to hang up and call back again lose their place the call queue, further delaying emergency assistance.

"Don't hang up!" said Spence. "The instant you do that you go to the end of the line. As frustrating as it can be to be on hold when calling 911, the best thing to do is to stay on the line...Every call is answered eventually."