Shortage of dispatchers leaving more 911 callers on hold

In an emergency when seconds count, a FOX 11 investigation has found that 911 callers are burning seconds, even minutes on hold. 

Experts say it's a troubling trend nationwide, hold times getting longer because of a shortage of dispatchers. We worked with our sister stations across the country to see how LA and other cities compared. 

In Tampa, numbers obtained by FOX 13 show no wait, with dispatchers there consistently meeting their goal. It was different scene in Philadelphia, where FOX 26 showed 24,000 callers last year waited one and half to two minutes.

In Oakland, our sister station KTVU FOX 2 reported that thousands of callers in recent years have been waiting on hold for 2 minutes or more, some have even hung up in frustration.

So how does Los Angeles compare?

"It doesn't go over 120 seconds, or two minutes," said Los Angeles Police Department Captain Alex Vargas.

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Vargas oversees the department’s communication. He showed us around one the LAPD's two dispatch centers. He says the state of California mandates that 95% of 911 calls be picked up in 15 seconds or less, but Captain Vargas admits they often fall short of that mandate, including just the day before we spoke with him. 

"Yesterday we reached the mandate by 65%," he said. 

While we were at the dispatch center, we also witnessed some callers who didn't wait at all and one who held for almost a minute.

In fact, documents obtained by FOX 11 show that wait times can vary by day and time. For example, callers who dialed 911 in December at noon averaged a wait time of about 40 seconds, that's up 10 seconds from the same month and time last year. 

Captain Vargas admits the problem is getting worse, but adds he doesn't believe at this point the wait times are putting lives in danger. 

"Obviously we would love to meet our mandate on a regular basis," he said.

Gary Ludwig, who is a former president of the International Fire Chiefs association, says it's a troubling trend affecting all areas of the country. He says a combination of burnout, COVID-19 and the great resignation is fueling a shortage of dispatchers and creating longer hold times. 

He says dispatchers are quitting faster than agencies can replace them.

"Anybody with common sense can rationalize that the longer it takes to handle a 911, the more deleterious affect that could happen with that," Ludwig said. "I've been involved with  this 44 years." 

He adds that the majority of calls won't be impacted by a 10, 20 or even a 30-second wait, but there are some calls where it will make a difference. 

He says the newer generation isn't as interested in dispatch jobs instead opting for careers that offer a better work-life balance.

"I think the great resignation is having and impact," Captain Vargas said.

He adds he's losing dispatchers to jobs that let them work remotely or to burnout. In fact, he said the week we visited the dispatch center he had four people leave the department. 

"Retiring or resigning," Captain Vargas said.

He says ideally, he would staff 150 to 200 dispatchers a day, but instead only has about 120.

That means longer hold times and longer hours for dispatchers.

"More stressful for us," said Perla Ortiz, an LAPD  Police service representative or 911 dispatcher. 

She tells us that she and her colleagues often work 14 hour days to make up for the shortage. 

"It takes a toll," Ortiz said.

Departments around the country are lowering age requirements, raising pay and recruiting to try to attract more dispatchers. Captain Vargas says he is also holding morale boosting events and has put up the help wanted sign all over Los Angeles.

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