MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In an emergency, every second counts, but a WCCO investigation found that some 911 calls in Minneapolis were taking minutes to answer.
For two weeks now, WCCO-TV has heard from frustrated citizens and operators who say calls aren’t being picked up right away. One woman tried twice over five minutes to get through to 911 after her husband suffered a heart attack. He later died.
After multiple WCCO-TV reports, the city said its 911 director wouldn’t be doing any more interviews. So, our cameras traveled to the 911 center in Omaha, Neb., to see how a similarly-sized city fares during emergencies.
Douglas County’s 911 call center answers and dispatches all of Omaha’s emergencies. Mark Conrey, the county 911 director, has run the numbers at the center for nearly 20 years.
“There’s not a single number that gives you the story of what’s going on,” he said. “It’s a compilation of a lot of numbers.”
As part of the investigation, WCCO-TV captured an 8-minute stretch where calls in Minneapolis weren’t constantly being answered.
Conrey said he can’t remember their call-waiting alarm ever lasting longer than one minute in Omaha. He said 2 percent of their calls took at least 30 seconds to answer last month.
Minneapolis said it has no way to get us that data, even though the city says the average call is answered in less than eight seconds.
Omaha has the same number of operators and dispatchers as Minneapolis and handles about the same number of calls. Still, Omaha has its own way of making sure an emergency is picked up as soon as possible.
Like Minneapolis, Omaha staffs based on call demand.
Overnight in Minneapolis, sometimes there is only one operator available to answer calls, the WCCO-TV investigation found.
In Omaha, Conrey has decided they need at least two operators on duty overnight. Minneapolis 911 workers say they’re short-staffed because operators and dispatchers are training to do each other’s jobs.
Conrey didn’t want to comment about what the WCCO-TV investigation found, but he did say he’d be paying attention if staff told him they weren’t able to quickly answer calls.
“If they say it’s getting harder, I’d be a fool if I said, ‘No it’s not,'” Conrey said. “I have to go back and look and see if I can’t find the reason and see if I can correct it.”
Figuring out the best fit is no easy call.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) sets 911 standards and training. Its government affairs director says what Minneapolis is doing is common across the country, and the city says it is working.
“Any time you have to engage in cross training or retraining for skills, it takes time to get folks up to speed,” said Trey Forgety, the NENA director of government affairs.
In the long run, he says cross-training saves overtime costs and creates a more efficient 911 center. But he says it’s important centers are careful how they get there.
Back in Omaha, Conrey doesn’t see a day where all staff will be trained to do both jobs, but he knows no matter the differences between cities, the goal of getting a caller help remains the same.
There is a new initiative underway at Minneapolis’ emergency center, WCCO-TV has learned. An internal email from the 911 director to staff says she is committed to improving workplace culture.
The center has hired a consulting agency to conduct surveys, focus groups and interviews with staff. The 911 director said that’s something the city has wanted to do for years.