A woman in Austin, Texas, says she was left on hold by a 911 dispatcher for 15 minutes as her husband died, bringing further attention to a staffing shortage at the city’s 911 dispatch center, where response times are well above the national average.
“The phone just ringing, and ringing, and ringing,” Austin’s Tanya Gotcher told KEYE-TV about her call to 911 in May of this year when her husband Cassy, who she had been married to for almost 30 years, collapsed before later dying.
Gotcher, whose call to 911 was recently featured in a campaign ad for Travis County judge candidate Rupal Chaudhari, said she asked her father-in-law to also call the emergency dispatcher, so she wouldn’t lose her place in line and his call took over 10 minutes.
“It took him 10 minutes and then the 911 company realized he was in a different county, so they transferred him, and it took another three minutes,” Gotcher said. “Mine was a minimum of 15, if not 20 minutes.”
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“When you hear the phone ring for 15 minutes, and you can’t get to anybody to help you is the worst nightmare that you could have,” Gotcher added, explaining how she was giving her husband CPR as she waited for someone to answer her call.
Fox News Digital reported earlier this month that only 64.09% of 911 calls in Austin were answered within 15 seconds, which was well below the national standard of 90% of calls being answered in 15 seconds or less. The average wait time for the 38,000 Austinites who called 911 in October was two-and-a-half minutes.
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Austin City Council member Mackenzie Kelly, who requested a council meeting on the 911 staffing issue – ultimately held on Tuesday – told Fox News Digital last week that nearly half of the 105 911 operator positions in the city’s call center are vacant and that 19 out of 75 dispatcher positions are unfilled.
In Tuesday’s meeting, Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon told the council that steps are being taken to increase 911 dispatcher staffing, address burnout, and raise pay, along with awarding stipends and bonuses.
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“Within the past six weeks, we have hired more call takers and dispatchers than we have all year,” Chacon told the council, adding he has recently hired seven new personnel in the call center, which is the “most we’ve hired” in a long time. Chacon also said he has “doubled the size” of the recruiting center but added that in order to get to the 90% standard, staffing vacancies would need to be filled back to where they were in 2018 when the city was meeting that standard.
Kelly, who joined the city council in January 2021, told Fox News Digital the following Tuesday that she is encouraged by the progress being made in addressing the issue.
“I am heartened by the progress that the chief and city manager are making to ensure our community’s calls for service are answered in a timely manner,” Kelly said. “I look forward to the progress they make in hiring and retention as well as future discussions.”
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Following the meeting, the city of Austin posted a lengthy press release outlining the ways the staffing issues at the 911 center are being addressed and the challenges the city faces in staffing up.
“The City of Austin is planning to make salary adjustments leading to more pay for some existing 911 Call Takers and Police Dispatcher staff to address pay compression that resulted from the recent Living Wage increase,” the statement said. “These efforts, combined with stipends and the development of a Citywide recruitment campaign, support the retention of existing employees and aim to assist in filling staff vacancies at Austin Police Department’s emergency call center.”
The Austin police department is also facing staffing shortages affecting response times after the city council voted unanimously in August 2020 to slash the department’s budget by about one-third, leading to a large exodus of sworn officers. The council also canceled police cadet classes, which left APD unable to fill the open positions. At the time, Mayor Steve Adler and then-Council member Greg Casar touted the slashed funding as “reimagining” the department.
The funding has since been restored to keep the city in accord with a state law passed in 2021, but several officers past and present told Fox News Digital this month that issues with cratering morale and staffing still remain. At the end of August, the police department had 257 sworn officer position vacancies.
Fox News’ Paul Best contributed to this report.