'No response, no nothing:' Durham residents concerned as 911 calls go unanswered

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- When Durham resident Garrett Smith looked out his window one night and noticed people poking around his car, his first response was to call the police.

"Grabbed my phone started calling 911. As we were watching them do all this, it just kept ringing. It rang for probably 45 seconds to a minute. I thought something was wrong with my phone so I had my wife call, she was on for about two minutes, no response, no nothing," Smith said.

Smith and his wife called multiple times and were never able to get reach anyone.

"My thought was if something had happened. If that was a gun, if someone got shot, if some kind of violent incident, fortunately, this was kind of best-case scenario, but if any other situation had happened, there is no one coming," Smith said.

Smith isn't the only one receiving silence at the other end of their 911 call.

A woman reported calling 911 six times while caring for a gunshot victim last week.

"My first thing was how many people could have been saved or how many people would still be living if you know the phone was able to be answered and it's not fair to Durham 911 either. I've been seeing that they are understaffed," Ashley Canady, who lived near where multiple shootings took place in Durham on Aug. 18.

Earlier this summer, ABC11 reported a man tried to report a car accident but was unable to get through.

"When you dial 9-1-1 and you can't get anybody to pick up the phone, you're like 'Okay, what do I do?'" Josh Privette said. "I'm not a trained paramedic, I'm not a doctor, I'm just someone who rolled up on this."

Understaffing and delayed response times have been ongoing criticisms of the Durham Emergency Communications Center for the past few months.

The county was partnering with the Raleigh-Wake 911 center to help handle call volumes for the first six months of 2021 but is now handling all of its own calls.

In May, Durham's center reported 26 staff openings. Months later, the center said it hired four people but still has 25 open positions out of 60.

"I understand that it is hard to find people to work right now, it's part of life in a pandemic. I think it does make me concerned when the most critical pieces of infrastructure are going understaffed to where we can't even meet the bare minimum of picking up the phone for 911 that's concerning for me," Smith said. "I'm shocked for as long as this has been going on that nothing worse has happened."

The ABC11 I-Team uncovered surrounding counties are not seeing the same levels of staff vacancies. All the counties ABC11 reached out to report having fewer than 20% of their positions open.



At the same time, the Durham center is reporting low staff, the county is seeing a record number of calls.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said last month set a record with the highest number of calls received in the last five years

A spokesperson said when Smith called 911 on Aug. 9 there was a surge in calls. Similarly, the center received 81 calls during the time of the shootings on Aug.18.

Schewel said about 80% of calls to 911 are answered within 10 seconds.

"It's never acceptable if someone doesn't get a quick response at 911," Schewel said.

The state and national standards are for 90% of emergency calls to be answered within 10 seconds and 95% to be answered within 20 seconds.



North Carolina has a 911 Board that reviews these statistics monthly but there are no consequences for jurisdictions that fail to consistently meet the standard.

"Until we get that national standard, it's not acceptable and we'll be working every minute," Schewel said.

County data shows Durham regularly does not meet this target. Of the counties ABC11 reached out to, the I-Team uncovered Durham County's center is the only one currently not reaching this standard.

A review of past Durham County budgets shows the county has consistently not met this standard. Past county budgets show this target was not met between October 2018 to March 2019 and July 2019 to March 2020.

Melissa Arnstein said she had an issue reaching 911 last July. Her father-in-law had passed away in her home and she recalls dialing 911 multiple times before getting through to someone.

"It was concerning because it took me around almost four tries to get someone on the phone and my first thought was, 'Wow if this was a real emergency, we'd end up having to give up and take him there ourselves,'" she said.

Arnstein said the ongoing delays are scary.

"There is a clear need for whoever can sit down and analyze the system that we have and make some fixes because it's starting to affect people really badly and heaven forbid it's affected someone where it didn't come in time to help the people they were calling for because that's the whole point of the system to prevent stuff like that from happening," Arnstein said.

Schewel said the center will publicly release data on its response times this week.

As the issue persists, first responders are feeling the impact. The Professional Firefighters of Durham said first responders and residents are continuing to experience problems.

"On several occasions, residents with ongoing emergencies have called or shown up to fire stations because no one is answering," the organization told ABC11.

Officials urge residents to stay on the line until their call is answered instead of hanging up and calling again.

A spokesperson for the Durham Emergency Communication Center said they recognize the delays residents are reporting.

"We want you to know that we are working hard to provide the prompt service you rightfully expect," a spokesperson for the center wrote.

The center is working to recruit call takers who have previous experience, expanding the size of their training academy and offering overtime to ensure all shifts are covered.

"We acknowledge having more call takers on staff will put us in a better position to handle surges like these, and the steps outlined above are underway to make progress on staffing," a spokesperson for the center wrote.

As the county works to fill these positions, residents like Smith hope they don't end up in an emergency situation any time soon.

"There is not a lot of faith there anymore," Smith said.
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