Criminal Justice

New Orleans 911 center is answering calls more quickly, as long as you don’t count hangups

Officials with the agency that oversees New Orleans’ 911 service reported last week that their call-takers met a critical benchmark in August, answering more than 95 percent of calls within 15 seconds.

That’s quite an achievement for an agency that has struggled with call-answering times for years.

But the improvement is largely due to the agency’s decision not to include calls in which the caller hangs up before reaching a 911 operator. Those calls used to be included when tracking pickup rates.

Shinar Haynes, director of operations for the Orleans Parish Communication District, said at last week’s board meeting that 96 percent of emergency calls were answered within 15 seconds in August.

That figure, however, doesn’t include “abandoned” calls, those that are disconnected before someone picks up. That often happens because it takes too long for anyone to answer and the caller hangs up.

If those calls are included, the agency’s pickup rate for August drops to 89 percent. The Lens calculated the rate after obtaining the figures for abandoned calls through a public-records request.

That’s a bit better than it was most of last year. And it’s significantly better than this spring’s 79 percent pickup rate. That’s when a number of call-takers quit rather than accept new jobs that required them to handle all types of emergencies — police, fire and emergency medical services.

Haynes said at the meeting the agency is doing better because it rearranged schedules and assignments, added training and increased overtime. She didn’t respond to a request for comment on the rate when abandoned calls are included.

City officials who attended last week’s meeting were quick to credit the recent consolidation of 911 services for the improvement. The Landrieu administration has argued that training call-takers to handle all types of emergencies would lead to quicker response times and fewer hang-ups.

There hasn’t been a marked improvement so far. Last year, when call-takers handled just one type of emergency, they met the agency’s standard between 86 and 90 percent of the time.

That comparison isn’t exactly apples to apples. Last year, the 911 center tracked how many calls were picked up within 20 seconds, the threshold set by the National Emergency Number Association. Now the 911 center uses a cutoff of 15 seconds, set by the National Fire Protection Association.

However, the vast majority of calls are answered much more quickly — under two seconds — so that change probably doesn’t have a large effect.

The new standard is behind the change in how the 911 agency deals with abandoned calls. The old standard required them to be factored in when calculating the pickup rate; the new one doesn’t.

At one point in 2014, one out of 10 calls to New Orlean’s 911 line were disconnected before they were answered. The agency blamed understaffing.

Nothing prevents a local 911 agency from counting abandoned calls in its pickup rate, said Ken Willette, a representative of the National Fire Protection Agency.

Although those calls aren’t included in the pickup rate, the agency still tracks them — but only those that last longer than two seconds. Haynes said that’s because calls shorter than two seconds are usually mistakes and don’t make it into the call-takers’ queue.

The board saw at the meeting that there were 902 abandoned calls longer than two seconds in August, a major improvement over the thousands per month last spring. They did not see the 2,961 abandoned calls shorter than two seconds.

Liz Hill is 911 director for Evangeline Parish and head of the Louisiana chapter of the National Emergency Number Association. She said a number of communications districts are switching to the National Fire Protection Association standard.

That’s partly because insurance groups use the fire protection association’s standards to rate fire response, which factors into homeowners insurance rates.

“You have to understand the report and how it’s being devised. You can’t just take the report at face value,” Hill said. “You have to look at what was omitted and what was added and why.”

As part of the shift to the new standard, New Orleans’ 911 agency also changed which calls are counted in the pickup rate. It used to consider just calls to 911; it now groups them with calls to a separate emergency number that is used primarily by alarm companies.

Haynes said the agency wanted to make sure call-takers were being held accountable for those calls, too.

She said the public can use that 10-digit number, but she couldn’t say how often they do. We couldn’t find the number in the phone book or on the websites for the New Orleans Police Department or the 911 center.

The Lens requested a breakdown of 911 and non-911 calls to see if it had an effect on the percentage of calls answered within 15 seconds. It didn’t.

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