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SAPD: Caller behavior, possible system error contributes to 'abandoned' 911 call rate

Abandoned call rate below 15 percent since July

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Police Department's 911 abandoned call rate has steadily decreased this year but remains much higher than the Austin and Houston police departments, according to data obtained by the Defenders.

An abandoned call is considered a caller hanging up before a dispatcher picks up or a call that goes unanswered after it is presented to a dispatcher.

SAPD's abandoned call rate dropped below 15 percent in July and has stayed there after spiking at more than 25 percent last November.

The drop has been credited, in part, to the hiring of more than two dozen emergency call takers earlier this year. Additionally, some report-taking responsibilities were shifted to limited-duty officers, SAPD assistant director Steven Baum said.

"We didn't have enough people in the call center answering phones," Baum said. "Our abandoned call rate has been something that's been very troubling."

Despite improvements to staffing, Baum said more than 250,000 calls to 911 have been abandoned in San Antonio so far this year.

Baum said SAPD's task now is to determine whether caller behavior and possible system error are keeping the rate higher than the department would like.

SAPD plans to release a series of public service announcements later this year or early next year encouraging people to stay on the line if they accidentally dial 911.

Baum also pointed out that some calls counted as missed were later determined to have been answered.

Another encouraging sign for SAPD has been its grade of service, which refers to emergency calls being answered within 10 seconds or fewer.

The threshold was established by the National Emergency Number Association, a national nonprofit that develops standards for the 911 industry.

SAPD's grade of service crossed the 90 percent threshold in June, and approached 98 percent in the first week of November.

SAPD's grade of service was less than 60 percent throughout 2015.

"The start, if you will, of the triage for any type of emergency response necessary with a 911 call begins with that call being answered," said National Emergency Number Association CEO Brian Fontes.

Despite SAPD's improvements in lowering its abandoned call rate, it still drastically trails the rates of both the Austin and Houston police departments.

Austin PD has abandoned around one-half of 1 percent of all calls this year. 

Houston PD is even lower, at 0.04 percent for the year, and most months has an abandoned call rate of 0.02 percent. That means that at times, HPD's abandoned call rate has been hundreds of times lower than SAPD's.

Baum called it "not a true apples-to-apples comparison" because Houston and Austin segregate emergency and non-emergency calls, unlike SAPD.

Baum also said a software upgrade expected next summer should further increase how quickly dispatchers are able to answer calls.

"From the general public's perspective, they dial 911, they get the service that they're expecting. From a reporting, statistical, comparative standpoint, yeah, we're not comparing, we're not looking as well as we should be with other cities," said Baum.