Minneapolis' head of emergency communications defended service at the city's 911 center Wednesday in the wake of reports alleging understaffing that in some cases left callers waiting for an operator for minutes.
Heather Hunt told the City Council that the department hired six 911 employees this month and will bring on another six later this year. Most of the operators and dispatchers have been cross-trained to both answer calls and dispatch emergency responders in an effort that began three years ago, she added.
She said at least nine employees are on duty even during the slowest hours, and that the staffing meets standards recommended by a professional study. The city's 911 staff includes 68 operators and dispatchers.
"We are trying to get ahead of the game and with this next influx of staffing, I think we'll be able to get there," Hunt said during the presentation to the panel overseeing emergency management, with 911 workers in neon shirts crowded into council chambers.
The update to the council followed a report that WCCO aired last month describing 911 operators and dispatchers as frustrated with inadequate staffing caused by cross-training. Going undercover during early-morning shifts, the station found that only one operator answered calls at times and at one point someone was on hold for eight minutes.
A longtime dispatcher featured in the story, Robin Jones, wrote a letter to Mayor Betsy Hodges saying, "Critical events do not make appointments for our peak staffing periods."
Another report detailed claims that the family of Raymond Callahan called 911 in February when he was having a heart attack and could not get through. He later died in the hospital.
"That wasn't right," said Callahan's daughter, Karen Bailey, outside council chambers Wednesday as she teared up.
She said her mother, Arcola Tullis, was told to call back. When Tullis tried again a few minutes later, she was put on hold.
A city spokesman said the 911 center's average call answer time so far this year is 7 seconds, and that 19 employees have been hired since November 2012. Around that time, the city also altered the way it handled emergency calls after as many as six people who called 911 during the September 2012 shooting rampage at Accent Signage Systems didn't reach operators.
Hunt said the city is implementing a Next Generation 911 system next year that would link Minneapolis' system with other emergency call centers in the metro, a move that would allow calls to be routed to other centers. Participants already are discussing the rules for doing that.
The ongoing cross-training effort is to ensure that all operators and dispatchers can do both jobs by 2017, though in the past they have been separate positions.
But afterward, dispatcher Elizabeth Roether said that new employees are being rushed through training and that sometimes only one or two workers are actually operators answering calls on late-night shifts — the rest are acting as dispatchers, supervisors, or doing other work.
"It definitely puts on a good show," she said of the presentation.
As a new council member and chair of the committee, Council Member Blong Yang said he asked for the presentation to get general information on 911 staffing but that it did not answer all the questions raised.
"We definitely need to look at what the issues are further, to really get a sense of what's going on."