Why it’s tough to get through to 911 these days

Civic Affairs

Calls are up 21% in 8 months

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s tough to get through to 911 these days.

One woman who spoke with KOIN 6 News said she got a busy signal 3 times trying to report a fire. Another person said they waited 15 minutes on hold to report Saturday’s shooting at a restaurant in the Pearl District. And another person said they were trying to report a medical emergency and waited on hold 11 minutes.

Bob Cozzie, the director of the Bureau of Emergency Communications — which handles both emergency and non-emergency calls for Multnomah County, said the number of calls to 911 has increased by 21%. He added that what they’re dealing with now is not sustainable.

In November 2020, only 12 callers to 911 waited more than 5 minutes. By July 2021, that number jumped to 574 callers. Operators are supposed to answer 95% of those calls in 20 seconds, but Cozzie said they’re nowhere near that, even with dispatchers working overtime.

“They’re getting beat up this summer, there’s no better way to put it,” Cozzie said. “It’s been the most challenging summer I’ve seen in my entire career.”

“I won’t lie to you,” said City Commissioner Mingus Mapps. “Our emergency communication system here in Portland is overwhelmed by the violence and chaos that we see on the streets.”

Both Cozzie and Mapps — who oversees BOEC — said they’re working to fix the issue. Some ideas on the table include having another organization, like 311, to handle non-emergency calls. That would allow dispatchers to focus solely on 911 calls.

There have been days when non-emergency callers wait on hold for more than an hour.

There are also 24 open positions at BOEC, so they’re working to hire those. And they’re putting into place an automated program that would help sort some of the non-emergency calls.

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