Local News


911: The human cost of help on hold

Posted at 6:00 PM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-10 20:20:37-05

Life or death? Three little numbers could make the difference. 

But how long is too long to wait for 911 to answer to your call? 

Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears exposes the human cost of help on hold.

When Larry Gold swings a club, he doesn't know for sure where the ball will go. But when he calls 911, he expects a sure thing every time.

"Everyone tells you to call 911.  That's all your options are."

That option rang hollow on Dec. 17. 

After Larry's group finished a round of golf, their friend, Howard, was in serious trouble.

"Howard! Wake up! Wake up! Somebody came over and shook him. He was completely non-responsive. He wasn't moving. Eyes were rolling back. It didn't look good," Larry explained.   

"I called 911 on my cell phone and there was no response. It went directly to hold. No person answered.  I mean you got a guy, you don't know if he's going to make it or not!"

Larry says the wait felt like an eternity. This is what he heard when a recording answered his call.

"You have reached 911 emergency. Please do not hang up. Your call will be answered in the order received."

After waiting for two minutes with no answer, Larry thought there might be a problem with his cell phone.

He knew not to hang up, so while holding on his cell, he made a second call from a landline and got the same recording.

"Another 30 seconds. Another minute. Another minute. It's up to like 4 minutes now!"

By then, Howard was having a hard time breathing. His friend, Mike, tried to help while others also called 911.

"He's says I'm on hold! I'm on hold! I can't believe I'm on hold!" Mike recalls. 

Someone finally got through.  And Howard got help.

"Ended up going to the hospital and they ran a whole series of tests on me," Howard said.

But he can't make sense of what happened at the 911 call center.

"I personally, as the director of communications, want to apologize for that," said Denise Kee. "Because it is not acceptable. And it is not the level of service we want to provide to our community." 

LVMPD Communications Director Denise Kee says Metro recently moved from an old, analog telephone system to what she calls next generation 9-1-1.

"They may not hear the rings that they're used to hearing and that shouldn't confuse them or make them think they've immediately been put on hold."

Kee says there were 244 calls in the hour surrounding Howard's emergency, which is higher than the normal call volume for that time.  A time when 15 operators were working the 9-1-1 system.  

"I could staff 100 people a day and still there would be times during the day that we would have hold times that were longer than normal." 

Although Howard pulled through, his wait for help raises the inevitable question, "What if?" for his friend, Larry.

"What if I was at a bank and there was an active shooter and you just can't get through?  What if somebody's house is smoldering?  What if I'm a mom calling to say 'my baby stopped breathing' !"

Kee says, "We hear the 'what ifs' every single day. And that is why it is our priority to monitor the wait times and ensure we are answering them as quickly as possible."

As Contact 13 first reported, that "what if" question haunts Debbie, who asked us not to use her last name.

"I thought, what am I gonna do?!  Why aren't they answering?!"

Her husband, Steve, died the same day Howard needed help. 

She and her neighbors waited nearly four minutes on hold before getting a live operator at 911.    

Darcy Spears: You don't know what would've happened had that call been answered right away?
Debbie: Right.
Darcy: Had they been here five minutes earlier?
Debbie: Maybe he would still be here... I don't know.  I wish he was.
Darcy: What is your expectation?
Debbie: I don't think that any family or any person should ever get a recording on 911.  I think that phone should ring and should be picked up by a human within seconds.  

Metro says the national standard for answering calls is 10 seconds or less. 

They'll be adding 20 dispatchers to their budget request this year, but say that still won't be enough. 

If you do get a recording when you call 911, do not hang up or make another call.  Stay on the line and wait for a live operator to answer.