Portland residents trying to call 911 to report emergencies have to wait for increasingly long periods of time before dispatchers answer their calls. City officials say the system has become “unmanageable” and “broken.”

Portlanders who spoke with the local media outlet The Oregonian reported waiting more than two minutes before their calls are answered. This is far above the national standard of 15 to 20 seconds.

Crimewave in Portland making 911 wait times worse

The situation in Portland’s dispatch stations is exacerbated by the city’s violent crime wave. On Sept. 4, when a shootout occurred at a restaurant in the Pearl District in Northwest Portland, 911 wait times skyrocketed.

The shootout was between two groups of criminals who were firing at each other in the middle of a crowd in the early afternoon. Fortunately, the Portland Police Bureau said nobody was shot, but one adult woman and two male teenagers received non-life-threatening injuries during the shootout.

Average wait times for a 911 dispatcher on that day rose to more than 7.5 minutes. One Portland resident on social media wrote that when he called 911 to report the shooting, he was put on hold for more than nine minutes.

Kevin Holmes, an employee working a block away at the time of the shootout, said he was not surprised to learn about the long waiting times for 911 calls.

“You know you’re not going to get the help you need in this city,” he said.

Maxine Bernstein, writing for The Oregonian, called the incident with the Pearl District shooting “the latest example of serious problems plaguing the city’s emergency dispatch system.”

Bob Cozzie, director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications (BEC), called the delays “unacceptable” and said the city needed to find a solution soon, including rerouting non-emergency calls to other dispatch stations.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Cozzie. “There’s no other way to state it.”

Cozzie said Portland’s emergency dispatch stations are experiencing significant staffing shortages. Over the past six months, dozens of employees have retired, taken lengthy leaves, resigned or been promoted to other positions.

Training of new employees also takes a lot of time. Cozzie said many of the newly hired are still in training. The new medical and fire triage protocols put in place in an effort to cut down on the number of fire trucks sent to non-emergency medical calls are complicated and take some time to learn.

The BEC has 106 call takers and dispatchers that handle both 911 and non-emergency calls. Eight of Cozzie’s employees are still in training. The bureau has enough funding from the city for 128 full-time positions, but Cozzie is unable to fill the remaining 22 slots.

At the same time, Portland’s crime wave is also exacerbating the situation. On the day of the Pearl District shootout alone, the BEC processed around 115 calls of both emergencies and non-emergencies in the half-hour after the initial report of the shooting. More than two dozen of those calls were linked to the shooting, according to BEC spokesman Dan Douthit. 

Cozzie explained that his bureau has to take around one million calls a year, with 550,000 of them being emergency 911 calls and the other 450,000 being non-emergency calls. These calls can be anything from shootings to car prowls.

The BEC’s data shows 911 call answer times have been increasing since early in the year. In March, only eight 911 calls took more than five minutes for the dispatch station to answer.

This number rose sharply by May, when 221 calls took more than five minutes to answer. By July, this would double to 574.

The number of calls the BEC receives has also increased compared to 2020 by 20 to 45 percent, depending on the week.

For example, last July, the bureau received a total of 63,573 calls to 911. This represents a 22 percent jump from July 2020. By comparison, 911 calls in July 2020 only increased by two percent over July 2019.

“We are at a bottleneck,” said Cozzie. “I want to remove the bottleneck.”

His bureau’s proposed solution is for the city’s 311 system to be expanded. The city’s 311 number is the line residents call for non-emergency situations that need the attention of medical, fire or the police.

Unfortunately, the number only receives calls on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cozzie wants the 311 line to handle calls around the clock. This will significantly relieve pressure on the 911 line.

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