An Operator Shortfall at Portland's 911 System Leads to Dangerously Long Wait Times

The dispatch desk is getting more calls, but has less staff to answer the phones than five years ago.

Dennis Elleson heard a crash, then his wife's screams.

It was around 3:30 am Dec. 9 when a fir tree smashed through the roof of his home in the Lents neighborhood, pinning his wife, Bobbi, to a bed.

Elleson, 61, scrambled to get his wife some air. But his efforts were futile. "I watched her leg fall," he says, "and then she took her last breath."

Elleson called 911. Then he waited.

In Portland's emergency dispatch center, a five-minute drive away, operators were slammed. Heavy winds brought a flurry of emergency calls to the center. Downed power lines. Traffic accidents. Sounding alarms. A reader board showed more incoming calls than people to answer them.

In all, Elleson waited more than two minutes and probably close to four for an operator to answer his call—a wait that amounts to eons for emergency responders. The city has not released data on the call's length, but three emergency operators tell WW that Elleson was on hold for more than two minutes.

A quicker response time would not have saved Bobbi Elleson: It eventually took firefighters three hours to extract her body from under the tree.

But her husband's experience on hold is one of several warning signs that Portland's 911 system faces its own emergency: Its dispatch desk is receiving more calls each year, but has far fewer people answering the phones than it did five years ago.

If call volumes hold, Portland is on track this year to see a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of calls on hold for longer than two minutes.

The inability of Portland's 911 system to keep up with demand has been largely ignored this election year, overshadowed by more visible issues like homelessness, police accountability and transportation.

Yet even the Portland official who oversees the system concedes its backlog is putting lives at risk.

"We're heading," says City Commissioner Steve Novick, "into dangerous territory."

There's never been a worse time in Portland to depend on 911.

Portland's Bureau of Emergency Communications answers police, fire and medical calls for multiple agencies in Multnomah County, and calls have jumped in the past five years, increasing 18 percent since 2011 thanks to cellphone and population growth. A car crash that used to generate two or three calls can now sparks 25.

Over the same period, the number of call takers and dispatchers has declined by 23 percent.

That shortfall comes even as funding has increased. It points to a failure by emergency managers to respond to increased demand by training new operators.

The city is not training enough new employees to keep up with turnover in a job that burns out workers.

To meet demand, Portland uses a system of forced overtime for operators who already work 10-hour days, regularly extending their workdays to 12 hours. The short-notice overtime orders—SNOT for short—are stretching employees to the breaking point, interviews with six current and former employees show.

Yet the orders arrive almost daily. "Staffing levels are starting to get desperate," one such email from March 5 reads. "Please Please Please call and come help."

Workers who refuse overtime are threatened with discipline or termination, under the terms of their union contract. "That's always the dagger they dangle in front of us," says Lisa Vincenty, a 22-year veteran, speaking as a member of her union.

Others say the workplace atmosphere has turned toxic.

"I'm well-trained," says one operator who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. "I love the job. I want to stay. We're just suffering so much."

On the surface, many of the bureau's statistics look good. About 96 percent of emergency calls are answered in 20 seconds or less. Ninety-nine percent of calls are answered within 60 seconds.

But as call volumes have increased, so have the number of calls holding for more than two minutes. In 2008, Portland reported 31 calls that waited for answers for over two minutes. In 2015, the city had 423 of those calls—a 13-fold increase that Novick, who took over the bureau in 2013, says he can't ignore.

He calls the increase "disturbing."

The system, he says, is stretched to the breaking point. "And we can't afford to have it break," he says.

So how did it get this way?

Funding is not an obvious factor. The budget for Portland's emergency communications bureau grew from $14.6 million in 2005-06 to $23.7 million in 2011-12, increasing an average of $1.5 million per year. This year, the bureau's budget is $24.7 million, an increase of $250,000 per year in the past four years.

Meanwhile, Multnomah County's population has grown by more than 12 percent over the same period, jumping to 777,490 as of July.

Lisa Turley, the bureau's director since 2006, says she has not been able to add staff in most budget cycles. "If I can hold my budget harmless," she says, "I figure that's a win."

But employees say managers, including Novick, have made the problem worse by failing to plan ahead for employee turnover in a job with a steep learning curve.

It takes up to two years to train and certify a dispatcher, who must pass a battery of tests but doesn't need a college degree to earn a starting salary of $21 an hour.

Dispatchers need to type fast, demonstrate sound judgment and keep their emotions in check even as adrenaline pumps through their veins.

"It's not a job everyone can do," says another employee who requested anonymity. "You could actually kill someone."

Retirements and burnout have depleted the ranks. Nineteen employees left the bureau in 2013 alone, city records show. And the bureau has yet to catch up.

Meanwhile, not everyone making it through the city's lengthy training program is sticking around. Seven of 12 new hires in 2014 resigned the same year.

Today, city records show the bureau has 81 certified operators, although it should have 107. Portland spent nearly $600,000 on overtime last year.

That would be enough to hire six or seven operators. A 2002 audit recommended the bureau set goals for hiring, training and retaining sufficient staff, but a 2013 update of that report showed the bureau hadn't done so.

"The short staffing up there is not getting any better," says Steve Phebus, an operator who retired in December. "In fact, it's getting worse. They've seen it coming for 10 years, and they've done nothing."

Other factors contribute to the problem.

Operators also answer calls to Portland's non-emergency number, 503-823-3333, but wait times there are even longer—sometimes 10 to 12 minutes. Frustrated callers will sometimes hang up, call 911, then complain the non-emergency number is broken.

(Dispatchers say many of those 911 calls deal with the homeless population—records show about 2,000 such calls per month—and Mayor Charlie Hales' efforts to loosen camping rules have exacerbated the trend. Police typically won't respond to calls complaining about people sleeping on the street, so dispatchers have to endure callers' angry tirades.)

Novick blames funding and says he's going to fight for more money for the bureau in next year's budget, despite Mayor Hales' call for 5 percent cuts in all bureaus so he can shift money to housing.

Hales declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed. Sara Hottman, his spokeswoman, says the mayor still wants bureaus to propose cuts "as an exercise in budget management," adding that he won't necessarily implement those cuts.

It will be up to Portland's next mayor to address the shortcomings—and the three leading candidates all say Portland needs a fix.

"Anything that gets to frontline public safety needs to be a top priority," says Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler.

Sarah Iannarone, a program administrator at Portland State University, says the city should incorporate a 311 system to address non-emergency questions more efficiently.

Jules Bailey, a Multnomah County commissioner, says 911 is a core government service. "People need to be safe," he says, "and we need people to get a 911 operator when they call 911."

For Dennis Elleson, whose wife died in the December storm, change will come too late.

In his moment of trauma, Elleson says he doesn't remember being on hold. But help could have come sooner. Once he reached an operator, he heard sirens from a nearby fire station in Lents within seconds, he says.