Criminal Justice
 

Understaffing blamed for high number of unanswered 911 calls in New Orleans

Emergency operators in New Orleans answer fewer 911 calls on time every month, and 10 to 12 percent of callers never reach anyone, according to Orleans Parish Communication District Director Stephen Gordon.

Call takers for the New Orleans Police Department, New Orleans Fire Department and New Orleans Emergency Medical Services should answer 95 percent of 911 calls within 20 seconds, according to standards set by an emergency number association.

Operators have hit that mark for just 84 percent of the 40,000-plus calls this month.

That’s down from 97 percent in February 2013. Performance has declined practically every month since.

Gordon discussed the issue Wednesday at a meeting of the City Council’s criminal justice committee.

The disclosures came days after WWL-TV reported that an Uptown family had repeatedly tried and failed to reach 911 after an attempted break-in. Councilwoman Susan Guidry, whose district includes the family’s Willow Street home, repeatedly mentioned the story during the meeting.

Understaffing may be to blame. The Police Department, which handles all 911 calls before transferring them to other agencies, is budgeted for 45 operators but only has 36.

“We believe it’s a staffing issue — not enough call-takers,” Gordon said.

The Police Department was authorized to hire an additional 19 operators in March. That would fill the vacant positions and add 10 more. The department has begun interviewing applicants, Chief Ronal Serpas said at the meeting.

But City Council members wondered if thousands of calls from off-duty police officers — who use it to check in for their moonlighting shifts — are clogging the emergency system. Officers do not actually call 911, but the same emergency operators answer the phone.

“It’s disturbing that 911 is being used for anything else than 911,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, whose two sons are New Orleans police officers. “911 was touted as a way to get emergency services. Now we hear they’re using it for details.”

When the Lens reported on the issue last year, those check-ins represented 12 percent of total monthly call volume.

That’s now about 8 percent, Serpas said. The Police Department has shifted some of those check-in calls to officers on administrative duty.

Gordon said those officers have taken about 6,000 off-duty detail calls this year.

However, the share of abandoned calls — those in which the caller hangs up or the call is dropped before someone answers — hasn’t declined. It was about 10 percent last year when The Lens reported on the issue.

The goal: about 2 percent, a staffer told The Lens last year.

Serpas said it’s a distraction to blame the detail system.

“This is a red herring. The staffing is a result of the budget we’ve been authorized to use,” Serpas said. He added that police personnel budgets have decreased sharply since 2010 but are beginning to level off in the midst of a recruiting effort. “Focusing our attention on the officers calling for paid details is an obfuscation.”

Serpas said using the 911 center for check-in calls allows the department to track the location of all off-duty officers on private assignments, and, when necessary, dispatch them to nearby emergencies.

Serpas pointed out that an off-duty officer working a security detail responded to a downtown shooting this week.

“This worked the way it’s supposed to work. We caught two people who shot a man within five minutes,” he said. “Of course, that doesn’t do anything to help the lady on Willow Street.”

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