By Luke Broadwater
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Several Baltimore City Council members voiced concerns Monday about wait times constituents have experienced when calling 911, saying residents have relayed stories of being placed on hold while homes were burglarized and houses burned.
“At minimum, our citizens deserve for their calls to be picked up,” said City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who read aloud complaints from residents during a Public Safety Committee hearing on the city’s 911 operation. “I think we on the council are feeling that there is a systemic problem happening.”
Baltimore Fire Chief Niles Ford testified that the average wait time for the city’s 911 is only six seconds, and said he has only about two dozen complaints on record about long wait times.
But Ford acknowledged longer wait times do occur during major incidents — such as a fire during which dozens of people call at the same time. The city also is experiencing higher rates of calls because of the increasing rate of violent crime, he said.
Ford said the 911 call center’s staffing has declined over the years. Before 2009, the city assigned 35 operators to the 911 call center for each shift. Today, staffing is between 12 and 18 per shift, he said.
Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake transferred control of the call center to the fire and police departments in 2015. Before then, oversight of the 911 system had been under Mayor’s Office of Information Technology.
Ford encouraged council members to send him the specific complaints they’ve received, saying: “We want to make sure we continue to improve. We’d love to look into each one of the complaints that you’ve discussed.”
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and council members Ryan Dorsey and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer echoed Cohen’s concerns, saying they’ve received complaints from constituents about long wait times.
“I get complaints all the time,” Schleifer said.
Dorsey said he fielded a complaint from one resident who said she waited on hold as she watched a home get burglarized.
“When you say we don’t fail to dispatch calls, it’s just not true,” Dorsey told fire officials.
Young said residents have contacted him via Facebook to raise concerns.
“If we’re not fully staffed, what’s the impediment that’s keeping this from being fully staffed?” Young asked. “This is really critical to the lives of people who live in the city. … This is an emergency for us. We really want to make sure are we attracting [and] maintaining these 911 operators.”
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, suggested that the council consider pressuring the mayor’s office to add more positions for 911 operators into next year’s budget.
But, he said, residents may also need more education about where to call with complaints, noting that many issues are better served by calling the city’s non-emergency 311 service.
“We have a lot of folks who are calling 911 for things they should be calling 311 for,” Scott said.
City Council members have repeatedly raised concerns about the 911 system. They say residents have complained of dropped calls, no answers and busy signals when trying to report an emergency.
Last June, the 911 system crashed for more than an hour — leaving police and firefighters unable to receive calls via the emergency phone line. The crash was suspected to have been caused by a problem with Verizon, which maintains equipment and networks for the city.
Ford said Monday that problem has been resolved and the system hasn’t crashed since.
The city’s 911 center is the state’s busiest, sometimes handling 4,000 calls a day. About three-fourths of calls are for police assistance; the rest are for medical emergencies and fires.
Call-takers are busiest between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. each day, Ford said.