Police: Small jump in 911 wait times caused by spike in calls, fewer dispatchers

Nathaniel Herz

The Anchorage Police Department is fighting a small spike in the time it takes for its staff to answer 911 calls.

The number jumped to 11 seconds in the third quarter of this year, after seven straight quarters holding steady at nine seconds. The department attributes the change to a rise in calls and diminished staffing, Chief Mark Mew said in an interview.

The department is hiring new dispatchers and is trying to bring down the times, which are tracked in the city's quarterly performance reports. And in October, the delays dropped to 10 seconds.

But Mew stressed that the numbers aren't as significant as others in the performance reports, such as the amount of time it takes for an officer to respond to a high-priority call after being dispatched -- which actually fell by about six seconds between the second and third quarters, from four minutes to 3.9 minutes.

"Definitely, we're watching it. Definitely, we're going to try to bring it back down," Mew said, referring to the answering times. "When somebody's having an emergency, we want to shave seconds everywhere we can. But I think two seconds at the call-taker end, compared to three or four minutes on the driving end, makes this number relatively insignificant."

The department currently has 42 trained dispatchers, down from 53 in 2009.

Calls to the department have also risen sharply between 2012 and 2013. Dispatchers have handled nearly 177,000 calls so far this year, as opposed to some 154,000 at the same point in 2012, according to numbers provided by the department.

Mew attributed the rise to the increasing prevalence of mobile phones, which he said have resulted in more duplicate calls each time there's a crime. That's a view bolstered by the recent jump in call volume despite a decline in the total number of reported crimes last year.

More cellphones have also meant more inadvertent calls, Mew said.

"We're getting a lot of butt-dials to 911," he said.

Hackers have also contributed to the spike, he said, by breaking into local hotels' telephone exchanges -- which can result in 911 calls when they dial nine to get an outside line, then one and one again in an attempt to reach an international number.

The growth in calls has been seen "across the country," said Ty Wooten, the education and operations director for the National Emergency Number Association.

He said in a phone interview that the rising number of duplicate calls, based on increased mobile phone use, is a national trend.

"Everybody calls for the same event," he said.

Wooten said that the two-second increase in itself is not immediately alarming but that it is important to watch the numbers in the next quarter to see if the rising trend continues -- something that Mew said the department would be doing.

"If it goes from nine seconds to 20 seconds, and we can't get control of it, that's a problem," Mew said. He noted in a follow-up email that the drop to a 10-second delay in October suggested that the wait time "might be coming back down."

Meanwhile, city officials are awaiting the results of a study examining the broader structure of the police and fire dispatch systems, and the technology they use, Mew said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.