PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — When you call 911, there is a reason why, and seconds count.
In one Hampton Roads city, a lot of people say they called for an emergency, and the phone rang, and rang, and rang, and sometimes no one ever picked up.
10 On Your Side got working on this, demanding documents from the city of Portsmouth to find out what happened, why it happened, and what is being done about slow response 911.
The 911 call rings unanswered for 10 seconds.
The national standard is for that call to be answered 90% of the time before 10 seconds.
However, statistics show Portsmouth 911 fails to do that during all hours of the day.
“I saw a young man and a woman fighting in the street. He was very angry. He was screaming in her face. He head-butted her. He threw her on the ground,” says Portsmouth resident Traci Lovelace.
Last September she saw that attack taking place at a Portsmouth intersection.
Frantically, she calls in to the Portsmouth 911 call center.
“I called 911 a total of three times. I let the phone ring at least a minute the first time. At least 1.5 minutes the second time and the third time. I thought something was wrong, so I didn’t let it ring that long then I called the non-emergency and that was unanswered as well.”
Stunned by this repeated failure to pick up, Lovelace emails a complaint outlining the story she told us which then circulated among Portsmouth City Council members.
“That was a defining moment,” says Councilman Bill Moody, who calls Traci’s 911 complaint the “straw that broke the camel’s back … this citizen’s experience said to us enough is enough. This is a problem we need to deal with now.”
City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton emailed then Police Chief Tonya Chapman.
“There are critical problems with our 911 operation, which is at a crisis pitch … the city is at great risk.”
Moody adds” “my concern, first of all, we let those citizens down by not having the latest in technology.”
We reminded him it was a matter of simply not answering the call, to which Moody responded, “answering the phone, yes, it’s unacceptable.”
“What would happen if I only had one call to make before my life was in jeopardy, or a family member’s life was in jeopardy?” It’s not only Traci, in April a Portsmouth house caught fire and Katrina Perry was driving by.
“I decided to call 911, and no one answered. I let it ring several times. I hung up, called back, let it ring several times, I hung up, called back, let it ring several times, hung up, and then on my fourth attempt someone answered.”
Sadly, it’s not only Traci and Katrina. 10 On Your Side obtained 2018 answer times for Portsmouth 911.
The calls should be answered within 10 seconds 90% of the time, but in Portsmouth they are in the 60s. The statistics also show thousands of calls over the year aren’t even answered within 40 seconds.
10 On Your Side asked Councilman Moody what he thinks these numbers mean.
“It tells me we certainly need to change something, and the multi-faceted changes that are being addressed by our city will help.”
We asked Katrina whether it undermines her confidence with Portsmouth 911.
“Absolutely my confidence is shaken. I don’t trust it, and that’s why I came to you all because I need answers and Portsmouth needs answers.”
At an April Council work session, Patton explained the 911 failures: “The delay is due to the carrier’s legacy equipment, which is at the end of the life cycle and needs to be replaced by EZ Net.”
Patton, who refused our request for an interview, is now proposing implementing this top technology, Enhanced 911.
“This technology will upgrade all existing legacy technology on the carrier and provide fast and reliable service from the point of origination to the Portsmouth Public Safety Answering Point.”
To solve staffing problems in the call center, Portsmouth is making it easier to get jobs by fast tracking the training.
7 new recruits have already been hired for 22 total in order to answer calls more quickly.
Portsmouth is also way behind in a non-emergency 311 call center, which many cities already have. Councilman Moody credits Patton for being proactive with a “we are behind, but here’s what we are doing to catch up” philosophy on 311.
“Sure we should have had it, but that being said, we are getting it and it should be available here pretty shortly,” Moody said.
City Council was told during the work session 311 should be online by the end of May.
Lovelace, however, who heard the city manager’s presentation in April, is less impressed by what she heard from the city manager.
“It was really disappointing what she said, because she basically told me what she said in October. It appears nothing has changed except they added an additional 7 people to staff.”
“I felt the same frustration the citizen felt,” says Councilman Moody, who ironically was behind what he believed to be a drunk driver, called 911 to get police to where he was, but found himself on the waiting end of a 911 call that was answered too late.
“I called 911, the phone rang, rang, rang, and by the time I finally got someone to answer, the car turned off and was gone.”