PORTLAND, Ore. Portland's 9-1-1 center was overwhelmed early Sunday morning by three phone calls at once.
Only three operators were on duty at the time two others had gone on break when a MAX driver called to report a house fire in Gresham. One operator was already taking a report on the non-emergency line about someone missing from an adult care home.
The remaining two operators were immediately occupied with the fire call: One talked to the MAX driver while the other sent the fire trucks rolling.
Two more 9-1-1 calls came in seconds later. Both callers heard a recording telling them to wait for an operator.
Gresham firefighter Tom Rutledge was one of those callers. Not knowing the fire had been reported, he ran into the burning house and crawled up the smoke-filled staircase searching for victims. He kept the cell phone clamped to his ear. He was on hold for one minute and 44 seconds before a live person answered.
Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the Bureau of Emergency Communications, was angry when he learned that one operator on duty Sunday finished a non-emergency call while two emergency calls waited.
Although that didn't delay firefighters responding to the fatal house fire, Leonard said 9-1-1 operators didn't know whom they were putting on hold. Those callers could have been reporting a life-threatening emergency somewhere else in the Portland area.
"This deeply disturbs me," said Leonard, a former firefighter. On Tuesday, Leonard ordered that all 9-1-1 calls will have priority over non-emergency lines even if the operator has to interrupt the non-emergency conversation.
"Pick up the phone and answer it," said Leonard.
The mangers of the bureau, which handles emergency calls for all Multnomah County police and fire agencies, defended their policies, saying they are doing the best they can despite chronic understaffing and a call load approaching 500,000 a year. But a survey of three other counties in the area showed that all answer 9-1-1 calls faster. Both Clark and Clackamas counties manage to do so with fewer operators per 1,000 calls received.
Last year 90 percent of the 9-1-1 calls in Portland were answered within 20 seconds, but almost every day, someone waits two to three minutes.
Lisa Turley, director of the city's Bureau of Emergency Communications, said most U.S. call centers face the same problem: too many calls and too few operators.
"I know it's awful to be the person who's waiting almost two minutes," said Turley. "Nobody feels worse about calls holding than the person on duty."
Leonard said he's also concerned with the bureau's policy of allowing a recorded message to answer 9-1-1 calls during busy times. Operators have been trained to finish the 9-1-1 call they're on before moving to the next 9-1-1 call, in what operations manager Toni Sexton describes as "one call at a time, and move on."
But Clackamas, Clark and Washington counties do things differently. During busy times, operators may end up juggling multiple 9-1-1 calls when they put callers who don't have life-threatening emergencies on hold. That frees them to screen the next 9-1-1 call.
What's more, live operators, not recorded messages, answer all 9-1-1 calls in Clackamas and Clark counties. In Clark County, callers wait an average of just five seconds before an operator answers the line.
In Washington County, a recorded message will answer calls when operators are swamped, but assistant director Larry Hatch said the calls are almost always answered within 30 seconds. He's never heard of an emergency caller waiting for a minute.
Todd DeWeese, spokesman for the Portland 9-1-1 center, said that he also had to wait what he conservatively estimated was two minutes when he called 9-1-1 a couple of weeks ago to report a man who passed out downtown.
In another incident related at a recent Portland Police Chief's Forum, employees at the downtown Portland eatery Veganopolis tried to report a strong-arm robbery this spring. After calling twice, getting the automated recording and waiting for what they said felt like minutes, employees gave up. According to inquiries from Leonard's office, at least one of the 9-1-1 callers from the restaurant waited on hold for about a minute.
But Turley said her bureau hasn't been hearing widespread, negative response.
"We're not getting 20 complaints in a day," Turley said. "We're getting one or two a week."
The bureau is budgeted for 115 operators also known as call-takers and dispatchers but it only has 81 fully trained. Another 23 are in training. Eleven spots remain unfilled.
Managers say the job is high-stress and demands someone who can remain calm in pressure situations. Many recruits are forced to drop out during the 12- to 18-month training.
Turley said she worries that requiring operators to juggle 9-1-1 calls would create even more stress, and that doing so in a big city isn't a reasonable demand.
"People would leave," Turley said. "... We have huge burnout issues."
The dispatch centers in most big cities will answer callers with a recording at times, Turley said. She said they also deal with one 9-1-1 call at a time.
Starting later this year, the bureau hopes for at least a partial solution to its staffing woes: It will train some recruits to work only as call-takers, a job that typically takes about six to nine months of training. That could shave as long as a year off the time it takes to train a recruit as a full-fledged calltaker and dispatcher meaning the bureau would have more employees on hand to answer 9-1-1 calls.