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Emergency service hurt by lack of operators

Tempers flashing, their voices climbing, and both worried that the situation might escalate out of control, Cheryl and Matt Bellfy turned to 911 for help.

Only one of them got through.

While Mr. Bellfy reported the domestic dispute with his estranged wife to a 911 operator from his cell phone in the kitchen, Mrs. Bellfy grew frustrated on a bedroom phone as a 911 recording instructed her to wait for the next available operator.

The situation Saturday evening left both Bellfys questioning the operations at the Toledo police 911 center on Monroe Street, where precious seconds of response time can mean the difference between life and death, yet understaffed operators are forced to answer an increasing number of calls.

“This wasn't life-threatening, but what if my daughter had been choking? What if someone was holding a gun to my head?” asked Mr. Bellfy, whose call prompted a police officer to respond to the Bellfys' West Toledo home minutes later.

Though 96.3 percent of callers to the Toledo police 911 center through July this year reached an operator within 20 seconds, thousands of others heard a recording instead.

The 911 phone lines are overwhelmed during peak call periods, such as weekend nights. Additionally, the number of calls throughout the day has increased steadily in the last few years - from an estimated 493,487 calls in 1998 to 551,945 last year.

But much of the problem also is that the police department can't keep the operator positions filled. Only 53 civilians are employed in a center once envisioned for 72 civilians.

The Toledo 911 unit is just part of the larger, recently overhauled Lucas County system that was made possible through a 1995 levy. Before the levy, county operators took calls from people trying to contact Toledo police, and police dispatchers then sent crews to the scenes.

Under the new system, civilians hired by the police department handle call-taking and dispatching duties.

To ease the civilian understaffing, about 10 police officers remain at Toledo's 911 operations until the civilian positions can be filled. Eleven more operators are scheduled to be hired by the end of this year, communications Capt. Louise Eggert said.

It has been a battle, she said, because high-stress positions not only demand at least five months of training but also bring a lot of turnover, police said.

“It seems every time you get close [to hiring enough people], you get more people leaving,” agreed fiscal affairs Lt. Mike Stachura, who keeps track of the employee levels. “It's such a long process to hire them, with the background checks and the training and everything.”

That forces existing employees into overtime shifts, and of those employees, several are on sick and family leave.

“We have a lot of good, dedicated people here,” Captain Eggert said. “We need more.”

In an attempt to alleviate some of the frustration for callers, police have reduced the waiting time that triggers a recording instructing 911 callers to hold for an operator.

Previously, the message began after three rings. Now the message picks up after two rings, or in about eight seconds. The idea is to assure citizens more quickly that their call will be answered, but it may do the opposite.

“We were trying to get people the message not to hang up, but we may have generated a new problem,” communications Lt. Dave Wells said. “Now people have this feeling that their calls are not being answered.”

Quite the opposite is true, said Capt. John Sedlak, who earlier this year surveyed several other 911 systems across the country.

He said the average time for an operator to answer a 911 call in other large Ohio cities and cities comparable in size to Toledo in other states is anywhere from three to 11 seconds.

In Toledo, most calls are answered in 2.4 seconds, Captain Sedlak said. Still, that's not a lot of comfort to Mr. and Mrs. Bellfy - or anyone else who gets a recording when they dial 911.

“You call for help,” Mr. Bellfy said. “You expect someone to answer.”

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