calling 911When you call your bank, your utilities company, your mortgage lenders or the customer service department of an airline, you almost expect to be held in a queue until you eventually get through to a human voice.

However, when you are facing an emergency, your house is on fire, there is a burglar downstairs or a violent ex-partner is threatening to break down your door, you don’t expect to be put in a queue and be forced to wait until an overworked and highly-fatigued operator finally answers your call. After all, you’re life is at stake.

This somewhat unbelievable scenario is unfortunately the situation in certain parts of the U.S., where an inadequate and unreliable 911 system is being blamed on the breakdown of the emergency services.

For example, in Dallas, current and former 911 call center operators are insisting that their call center has been chronically understaffed in recent years and that exhausted operators are desperately trying to help callers, who, at peak times, are greeted by recorded messages and told to wait in a queue.

Attempts to fill open 911 call center positions have been unsuccessful and, according to many 911 workers in Dallas, supervisors often force employees to work overtime.

According to, officials in Dallas have stated that the city is authorized to have 90 911 employees working in its call center, but instead only 64 positions have been filled, seven of which are being taken up for training.
“They need to hire a bunch,” Joe Kay, a retired Dallas Fire-Rescue deputy chief who also supervised 911 operations for several years, told, adding “I would have never guessed it to be that low.” (1)

Recipe for Crisis

In what has been referred to as being a “recipe for crisis”, several former 911 operators in Dallas spoke about the shambles of the emergency staffing system.
“The staffing was just terrible,” said one former Dallas 911 operator. “When you consider the amount of people in Dallas compared to the amount of call takers that they have, it’s kind of scary.” (1)
The inadequate amount of staff has been blamed on being the cause of two high-profile incidents that recently occurred in the area, including an unanswered 911 call as a house burned down in July last year and a woman being murdered while on the line to 911 in August 2012. Although Dallas Police Chief, David Brown insists such problems have nothing to do with staffing issues.
“Staffing is not the issue,” Brown said in the wake of the house fire. “The issue is whether or not we can pursue technological changes.” (1)
Despite Brown’s quips that staffing has nothing to do with such problems, the number of still vacant positions prove that what is considered to be an ideal amount of staff to handle emergency call in Dallas has not been met and there are not enough people taking calls, meaning that callers are inevitably put on hold.

Budget cuts are being pinned on the inadequate emergency staffing in certain areas of America. Because there are insufficient numbers, the service relies on employees working overtime, which inevitably leads to workers being exhausted.

According to another former 911 employee in Dallas, people were getting denied days off for important events and, as a consequence, were calling in sick.
“There was a lot of absenteeism,” said another former 911 employee. “A lot of times like on games nights, basketball, football, things like that. There was a lot of absenteeism on holiday weekends, on payday nights… that made it harder for everyone else.” (1)
home invasion

A Nationwide Problem

And it’s not just in Dallas where budget cuts are affecting the efficiency of how police can respond to emergency calls and help victims.

In Oregon, a woman was recently told by a 911 operator that due to budget cuts authorities would not be able to help her when she rang in desperation as her violent ex-boyfriend broke into her flat.

The Oregon Public Radio reported how an unidentified woman called 911 in August 2012 because her ex-boyfriend was breaking into her home. Her call had been forwarded to the Oregon State Police due to redundancies made at the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office, which consequently means the department is only open Monday to Friday – too bad if you need police assistance at the weekend. According to the report, the 911 operated who spoke to the woman said:
“Uh, I don’t have anyone to send out there. You know, obviously, if he comes inside the residence and assaults you, can you ask him to go away?” (2)
The woman had told the operator that her ex-partner had attacked her before and left her hospitalized. The operator stayed on the phone with her before the man sexually assaulted and choked her.

The report goes on to state that the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office even issued a press release warning that due to inadequate law enforcement services, victims of domestic violence should consider relocating to an area more adequately providing emergency services. (2)

The economic slowdown in the U.S. has pushed municipal budgets to the edge, with police layoffs resulting in rising levels of crime being a common picture in many of America’s hardest hit cities. As Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the Fiscal Times:
“In places like Camden New Jersey, and Oakland California, the budget cuts are having a direct impact on violent crime, which is significantly higher.”
When one calls 911 only to be put on hold, or told the emergency contact will be unlikely to send someone out to assist them, it makes you wonder what taxes are being spent on.