911 call wait times prompting additions to dispatch center

Staff shortage to blame for wait times longer than national standard

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SAN ANTONIO – Changes may soon be coming to San Antonio's 911 dispatch center, also known as the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP.) Recent reports have shown call wait times are a little longer than what they're supposed to be.

City leaders are now proposing one main way to strengthen the system.

"There's a national standard that says we should answer 90 percent of our calls in 10 seconds or less. We're not there and we should be there," said San Antonio police assistant director Steven Baum.

Right now, the average answer time for 90 percent of the calls taken is 13.1 seconds. That's better than past years, but still about three seconds more than the national standard. Plus, 19.6 percent of 911 calls are abandoned. The national standard is five percent. 

Baum explained to the city's Public Safety Committee Tuesday afternoon, the reason is because the dispatch center is understaffed.

"A consultant looked at our call volume, time of day, day of the week, average length of call, all those types of things to come up with the recommendation for a staffing model," Baum said.

There are 94 people taking calls at the center now. The consultant suggested hiring another 49 call takers, plus supervisors to manage and train them. 

"It's something I know I would greatly support is filling those vacancies," said District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales.

Gonzales said people in her district have complained about this issue as well as police response times. 

"It definitely deters people from reporting when they don't get a response because they feel that they are not heard," she said.

Gonzales says dispatch center improvements will also help police response times.

There are also things the public can do to help. Baum explained that lots of people who call 911 get a recorded hold message, so they hang up and call again, thinking it will get them through faster.

"You will get a voice recording that says, 'Don't hang up if you have an emergency. If it's a fire emergency press 1, if it's a medical emergency press 2,'" Baum said.

Hanging up does not speed up the process. That's not the way the system is designed. It takes the calls in order that they come in. So if a caller hangs up, he or she loses that place in line. Staying on the line will get you to a dispatcher sooner.

Baum also talked about some people who dial 911 for non-emergencies. He said there is a public awareness campaign in the works that will help teach the community which numbers to call and when.

911 is strictly for emergencies that require a police officer or first responder immediately. The SAPD non-emergency number, (210) 207-7273, is for things like speaking to a detective, getting a police report, or finding out where to pick up you impounded car. 311 is the number for all city services, like trash pickup, potholes in the street, or burned out street lights. 

The pitch Tuesday to the Public Safety Committee was to include the funding for the new dispatch employees in the city's budget. The budget will be approved in the fall.

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