ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — 911 calls are still being put on hold in the City of St. Louis, months after News 4 Investigates exposed the problem. Dispatchers are telling News 4 a program meant to help people is actually slowing down the system even more.
Some local leaders are now calling for a top-down review of St. Louis’ 911 system after a News 4 investigation revealed startling statistics about people being put on hold when they call for help during an emergency.
Maureen Ramsey has worked for St. Louis’ 911 system for 44 years. She said handling calls for homicides, assaults, crimes against kids is all just a part of her job. But what stresses her out are the calls put on hold.
“It’s the six-year-old getting shot that the phone is not getting answered because they are all on other calls, that scares the hell out of me,” Ramsey said.
In February, News 4 exposed the troubling data: sometimes upwards of 50 percent of 911 calls in the city are placed on hold for more than ten seconds. The problems date back far into former Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration but have persisted even now, according to Ramsey. There are times the call center is short-staffed, with only one or two dispatchers on duty.
“That happens, a lot all last summer, it’s happening right now,” Ramsey said.
But she says there’s something else, now bogging down the system: a new program meant to help people in mental or behavior health crisis.
A News 4 investigation revealed St. Louis City is well above the national average of response time to 911 calls and residents are left with frustration.
“Don’t get me wrong the program is great. The mental health people need this but we don’t have the manpower to be tied up on all those calls,” Ramsey said.
The program, called 911 Diversion, started back in February. The idea is to re-route 911 calls, so rather than just an officer responding, social workers or mental health specialists assist instead. The goal is to provide services and perhaps even prevent police officer interactions going awry.
“We had no training, we had zero seconds of training for this. And all of a sudden, they say, it’s going on and its going today,” Ramsey said. Ramsey says the trouble is that dispatchers aren’t professionals on deciding which calls to divert.
“I am not nervous, I am scared because they are not in a good place, we don’t know what they are going to do,” Ramsey said.
“Everybody did have training. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them, if they need more training now that they’ve done it,” said Wil Pinkney, Director of Children, Families and Youth, with the City of St. Louis.
We took Ramsey’s concerns to Pinkney and Tiffany Lacy Clark, head of the agency Behavioral Health Response, which administers the program.
“We did face-to-face training with them. We listened to 911 calls, we triaged that with the dispatch staff,” Clark said. But they say more training could be on the way, especially for new hires.
“There is always room for more training and we are learning lessons, not just around the dispatchers in the communications center, but also lessons as we implement the whole program. So yes, there could be more training,” Pinkney said.
Ramsay also told News 4, the program also slows down 911 since they have to stay on the line.
“We really do need it, it has to be slim lined or something on our end,” she said.
That’s something Pinkney says they are working on. “We don’t want a call-taker staying on a call for an extra minute, that’s just too much time, but I know because they are short-staffed, even an extra five seconds is a lot of time,” said Pinkney.
Overall, they say the program is working. “Even if you are getting someone the support to get them through one day, that’s saving someone’s life, enough hope to get through one day, that’s all I can hope and its exceeded that above and beyond,” said Clark.
Hoping to resolve dispatcher’s concern, they say, the program’s here to stay. “I know that the mayor has committed the resources it needs to grow and continue,“ Pinkney said.
Public Safety Director Dan Isom says they have hired more call takers and are working to get even more on the job. He’s also looking at combining police, fire and EMS dispatching for better efficiency too.