An erratic driver caught the attention of Bryan Mann in Maize recently, so he called 911.
“I was turning left onto Maize Road, and out of no place comes this guy driving on the wrong side of the road,” said Mann, a Valley Center retired physician. “I had to crank my truck, and he swerved to the other side of the road and starts smashing mailboxes. That’s when I called 911.”
Instead of getting a dispatcher, however, he got a recording. The 911 system had placed him in a hold queue.
“I was blown away. I didn’t get a human. I got a voice recording. ... ‘We’re sorry, we’re busy right now. We can’t take your call. Please stay on the line,’ ” Mann said.
“I thought I was going to have a cow.”
Kim Pennington, director of Sedgwick County 911, said the queue is used when someone calls in and “I don’t have any agents to answer. Instead of just sitting there ringing on their end – and it keeps ringing on our end – it goes into a queue and we ask people to stay on the line, because if you hang up, you’ll be put back at the end of the queue.”
The county does not have the ability to track how many calls go into a queue or for how long.
Pennington said the county is working to reduce non-emergency calls that tie up the system and result in calls from people such as Mann getting put in the queue.
The 911 center gets an average of 1,400 calls a day. Unfortunately, not everyone is calling for the right reasons. To that end, Pennington said, the county is trying a three-prong approach to educate the public and meet demand.
The county plans to roll out a campaign about cellphone hang-ups and misdialed calls. Dispatchers handled 80,517 of those last year. The calls often occur when a cellphone “pocket dials” 911 or when a child is playing with a cellphone.
Pennington’s staff also is working with EMS, Comcare and the county’s Department on Aging to identify people who call 911 for medical assistance that is not an emergency.
In addition, more employees – those who take calls during a “power shift” – are brought on during the busiest parts of the day.
Mann called 911 during a peak time, and dispatchers did not meet their performance goal on the call, Pennington said.
He called at 5:35:06 p.m. – with 911 calls, every second counts. A dispatcher answered at 5:37:10 p.m. Police were dispatched at 5:38:34 p.m.
Dispatchers have several categories for calls. They endeavor to dispatch calls in the “E” category in one minute. Someone’s life is in jeopardy, Pennington said. It might be a homicide or rape or robbery.
Mann’s call was considered a Priority 1 call. That means something is occurring that endangers life or property but is not imminent. Pennington said the 911 center’s goal is to dispatch those calls within three minutes. It took an additional 28 seconds in this case.
Priority 2 calls are “something that has just occurred or is currently in progress where life is not in jeopardy,” Pennington explained. “We have seven minutes to dispatch those.”
Priority 3 calls are from people reporting something that has already happened, and 911 has 20 minutes to dispatch those.
“As far as policy on putting someone on hold, if a dispatcher is taking a non-emergency call and other 911 calls are going unanswered, they put the non-emergency caller on hold and answer the ringing 911 call. Which call is processed first is determined by the emergent nature of the second call,” Pennington said in an e-mail.
Dispatchers are expected to answer calls within 15 seconds and dispatch help within the range for the type of call 90 percent of the time.
“We’re at 97 percent of the time on each of those,” Pennington said, which is above the industry standard.
Pennington had a simple answer for why Mann’s call went into a hold queue: “Because they were taking other calls.”
She said she understands Mann’s concern and that it was valid, “but then you have to balance that out on being a good servant of taxpayer money. Do we pay extra people to be available just in case?”
With dispatchers hitting key performance indicators 97 percent of the time, “it’d be hard for me to go to the commission to justify more people when I’m over what the industry standard is.”
Mann followed the driver, who at one point, he said, parked in a Pizza Hut lot. The man then drove his truck through a wheat field, jumped over onto K-96, drove back to Maize and parked at a house. Mann said he was told the driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Mann said that when he called later to complain, an assistant for Pennington “kept talking about efficient use of taxpayer dollars. They’re not in the business of building widgets. There is no such thing as cost-efficiency in emergency services. That is not an area you save money on.”
Pennington said she understood that, but she also hopes people will understand 911 is for emergencies only.
“We have people calling us to get the phone number for the jail, people calling us about what time they have to go to court, calling us asking us when it’s going to quit raining,” she said. “We had a lady three weeks ago in Derby call because McDonald’s didn’t make her double cheeseburger correctly.”