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A Hummel Report Investigation

911... Please Hold

When there's an emergency - you call 911. But last year in Rhode Island thousands of people were put on hold. Telephone customers pay millions of dollars in surcharges every year to fund the 911 system, but the money's not going where it's supposed to. This week, Jim Hummel finds out why, and talks with one woman who says 911 failed her when she needed it last month.

 

SCRIPT

In an emergency - you call 911.

``911, is your emergency police, fire or medical?''

And that call goes here - to the 911 center at state police headquarters, where a  operator routes  it to an appropriate agency.

But in Rhode Island, thousands of people who tried to get through last year heard this:
`You've reached 911, please stay on the line.''

Put on hold - at a time when they needed help the most.

Hummel: ``Nearly 13,000 people who called 911 last year - that's calls 250 a week - had to wait an average of 11 and half seconds for someone to pick up.''

Now 11 seconds may not seem like a lot but during an emergency....
`You've reached 911 - please stay on the line.''
(11-second countdown)

And that's what it felt like for Dianne Belknap, owner of the Greenville Inn in Smithfield.

On a Sunday evening last month an elderly customer fell in the foyer of her restaurant.

Because of the high volume of calls at 911 she didn't even get the recording - just a ringing line.

Belknap: `` And I saw this woman laying there bleeding...she was face first laying flat on the ground on our tile floor, so I ran to the podium to call  911 - and the waitress said `I already called 911 - they didn't answer.' And I said you must have called the wrong number, they always answer.''

So Belknap called 911 herself, and let it ring 10 times with no answer, then hung up and decided to call the Smithfield Police directly. She had the number written down from the days before 911 existed.

Dispatcher: ``Smithfield Police, Dispatcher Lonergan.''

Belknap: ``Yes, this is Diane Belknap from Greenville Inn Restaurant. I can't get through to 9-1-1. I have a woman that just fell in my foyer, laying flat on the floor bleeding out of her mouth. I need a rescue over herer ASAP.''

Dispatcher: ``Ok Diane. What's the address there?''

Belknap: ``36 Smith Ave. Greenville Inn.''

Dispatcher: ``36 Smith. Okay, I'll send a rescue.''

Belknap: ``Thank you.''

Belknap: ``Still took 15 minutes to get someone here because we had to make three phone calls instead of one.''

The call center is supposed to have six to eight people, depending on the shift. But on some shifts over the past month it's been down to three. There were four the day we visited last week. The agency has not been able to fill vacancies because of a state hiring freeze. And it's blown through a good portion of its overtime budget to cover shifts as a result.

The Hummel Report has also earned that one 911 operator recently resigned, in part, because of the stress and frustration every shift of callers being put on hold as a result of the short staffing.

It wasn't supposed to be this way when 911 was established in 1988. That's because there is a surcharge on all telephones - a dollar a month for landlines, and a dollar twenty-six for cell phones. It helps pay for state-of-the-art tracking equipment that offers satellite pictures like these when someone calls in.

This year that surcharge generated $15 million. But 9-1-1 sees less than a third of that.
In fact, 911's budget has been cut - from just over $6 million five years ago to $4.6 million this year. Meanwhile, the number of calls over that period has increased 20 percentage.
So why isn't the money that we all pay every month going where it's needed? Because the General Assembly for years has been grabbing it to pay for other things.

White: ``We need the bodies - particularly during high call volume times - calls will go into queue.''

Ray White is the acting colonel of the Rhode Island State Police and Commissioner of Public Safety, which now oversees 911. White says it is a difficult balance between budget cuts and public safety.

White: ``I never want to have our people skimp on staffing personnel when it will affect the needs of the public.''

Hummel: ``It appears from what I've seen it is affecting the needs.''

White: ``It has - you are correct.''

Hummel: ``I'm just curious your reaction when you hear 250 calls a week are going on hold?''

White: ``It concerns me  - it does - and I put myself in the shoes of someone who may be calling. If I'm calling on behalf of myself or a loved one who is injured - you call, hopefully you can get to 911 you make that call you want it to be answered and you want it to be answered in a timely fashion.''

Hummel: ``Should the people in the state of Rhode Island have confidence in the system.''

White: ``Let me be very clear. Our 911 personnel are top notch - we have a state- of-the-art facility, but you can have a state-of-the-art facility and not adequate staffing then that diminishes the ability of that center. I don't think the public should have lack of faith in the 911 center, but they should have some concerns that there may be at times that calls go into queue. And their calls may not be answered in the timely fashion they would expect it to be answered, so there should be some concern in that aspect.''

Colonel White says they have asked the governor's office for more staffing.

White: ``All we can do is make the request and demonstrate to them the need for those positions. The approval process it outside my control.''

House Speaker Gordon Fox tells the Hummel Report that he has asked the House Finance Committee to explore the issues we are raising about funding, staffing and calls on hold as part of this session's budget hearings.

The governor's did not respond to our question as to why the budget is being cut again next year.

Diane Belknap says while 911 has worked in the past - this time it failed her.

Belknap: ``I said I don't know what's going on, but thank God I didn't have an armed gunman in here shooting someone and I only had one phone call and it was to 911 and no one answered.''

Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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