The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
Aug. 11—Months after Durham stopped routing nearly one in 10 of its 911 calls to Raleigh because of an operator shortage, a city resident says his repeated calls for help went unanswered.
Garrett Smith, 27, was sitting on the couch with his wife late Monday night when he heard voices outside his southeast Durham home.
Peering through the window, Smith said he saw two figures trying to open the doors of his car. One appeared to be carrying a gun, he added.
Smith and his wife called 911. The phone rang for about five minutes, but no one answered, he said.
From his first call at 9:35 p.m. until just before 10 p.m., when the people outside left, Smith said he tried repeatedly to reach the Durham Emergency Communications Center.
Smith dialed 911 four times, and his wife dialed three times, according to phone records he provided to The News & Observer.
In a statement over email, Beverly Thompson, a spokeswoman for Durham, said the city would look into the calls.
“In the meantime, we ask for the public’s patience as we are currently training new call takers who will be able to take calls within the next few weeks,” she said. “The Durham Emergency Center takes all inquiries regarding our answering of calls seriously and understand that the public’s expectation is that calls be answered promptly.”
Smith said he is thankful the strangers left, but he worries about what would have happened if they had tried to break into the house.
“I’m home with my wife and my baby,” he said in a Tuesday interview. “And if somebody got hurt, there’s nobody coming.”
‘Just a matter of time’
Smith said he was surprised no Durham officials had tried to contact him since the incident. He said he also called the Durham Police Department, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center.
Smith said his calls were only answered in Durham by a police substation, which tried to transfer him. But again, no one picked up.
And while Raleigh operators answered the phone, they said they could only try to pass the message along to Durham, according to Smith.
“I’m surprised nothing (bad) has happened yet,” he said. “It seems like it’s just a matter of time, if this is a standard occurrence in Durham.”
Thompson said when callers hang up mid-call, Durham operators do call them back. But that policy does not extend to calls that are dropped before a call-taker answers.
Routing to Raleigh
In December, staffing shortages led the Durham 911 center to begin regularly routing calls through the Raleigh-Wake center, The N&O previously reported. At the time, calls would ring for 30 seconds before automatically transferring to Raleigh.
That program saw about 9% of Durham’s calls sent to Raleigh, and was criticized after some firefighters said it caused dispatching errors and delays.
In a May interview with The N&O, professor Charles Jennings, director of the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called the situation “intolerable.”
“It’s highly unusual that a center would be unable to respond to that high a percentage of their calls,” he said.
This system continued until June, when Durham officials said hiring efforts had sufficiently staffed the center to end its reliance on Raleigh.
Thompson said that as of July 29, there were 25 vacancies at the emergency center, out of a total 60 full-time positions in the operations staff. That’s just one fewer vacancy than at the start of June.
She added that the city is preparing academies to bring in new staff members, and that the center’s call response times should improve as more trainees are moved to the floor in the coming months.
The N&O has asked Durham how many call-takers were on staff Monday night, and how many of the current vacancies are call-taking positions.
“I’d love to be able to rely on the 911 system,” Smith said. “For most of us, it’s the only route to help, whether it’s medical, or law enforcement, or anything.”
But he said the Monday night experience has broken his trust in the city’s emergency response.
“If there were a house fire, I need to know I can get to somebody before my entire house burns down,” Smith said. “And that needs to be something other than me getting in my car and driving down the street to the nearest fire station and banging on the door.”
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