DENVER (KDVR) — Crime continues to rise in the Mile High City, but dispatchers are taking longer to pick up the phone when you’re in a crisis.
According to the National Emergency Number Association, 90% of 911 calls should be picked up within the first 15 seconds, with 95% answered within the first 20 seconds.
While Denver 911 was close to those standards in 2019 and 2020, over the past two years it has taken significantly longer for Denver dispatchers to pick up. In 2020, 92% of 911 calls were picked up in 15 seconds, but in 2021 that figure dropped to 75% of calls picked up in that time.
So far in 2022, roughly six out of 10 calls are picked up in 15 seconds and 65% are picked up within 20 seconds, significantly lower than the national standard or neighboring departments.
“Anyone who has the need to call 911, the last thing that you want is to sit on hold or to wait, when you’re potentially having the worst day of your life, to be waiting for that call-taker to answer the phone and give you the help that you need,” Denver 911 Director Andrew Dameron said.
Dameron says the issue is compounded by two main factors: more people are calling 911, and they have fewer trained dispatchers to answer.
Massive turnover at Denver 911
The city’s dispatch department saw a 47% turnover rate in 2021 and saw 10 members of the 93-person team resign in September of that year. On top of that, recruitment struggled as the city saw a 60% decline in applications that year. With the time it takes for dedicated training, approximately six months, there is also a lag in coaching new recruits before they are ready to field emergency calls.
“Our ability to answer calls suffered significantly,” Dameron said.
The city has reformed its recruiting process, weeding out hurdles like polygraph tests and extensive background checks, to help alleviate some of the barriers in getting qualified applicants in the door and trained quickly.
“In eliminating a lot of that onboarding minutia, we have improved our ability to get folks through the door,” Dameron said.
Dameron said while staffing levels have improved since 2021, it is not improving fast enough because of the training lag. Denver 911 has doubled its training capacity to fill out its academies. On Tuesday, 19 people will receive training as part of the new effort.
“We put out 45 offers in the hope that we would have 30 people starting tomorrow,” Dameron told FOX31 on Monday. “That has slowly dwindled down now to 19, so we have some adjustments we need to make in terms of how we attract people.”
Denver has averaged 15 trainees per academy in 2022, after averaging 10 in 2021. The city also increased starting pay rate by 18% to incentivize more applicants.
Denver’s colossal 911 call volume on the rise
“When it comes to 911, our call volume on an annual basis is far greater than any other 911 center in the state, and our pay should reflect that,” Dameron said. “We should have the highest-paid 911 operators in the state of Colorado because we are asking so much of them.”
It’s hard to compare Denver 911’s operation to neighboring dispatch centers when they receive anywhere between double to triple the 911 calls as other metro-based centers, and don’t have double to triple the staff. In 2021, Denver 911 fielded 654,506 emergency calls, compared to Jeffcom’s 253,082 and Aurora 911’s 278,439.
So far in 2022, Jeffcom 911 has picked up 85% of 911 calls within 15 seconds, and Aurora 911 has picked up just under 80% of those calls in that time frame. Both agencies point to staffing for the underperformance in timely pickups compared to the national NENA standard.
Despite handling far more calls, Denver 911 only has an authorized strength of 93 emergency call takers. That’s compared to Aurora 911’s 91 positions. Aurora currently has 20 vacancies, while Denver currently has 32 vacancies, 19 of which will be filled in six months with the new round of recruits going through the academy.
Jeffcom’s authorized strength is 118 emergency communication specialists and has 91 currently on staff, five of which are undergoing training.
When asked if Denver 911 can realistically reach the 90% of 911 calls picked up within 15 seconds benchmark, Dameron said, “My goal is absolutely to get there, the people of Denver deserve us to be there, they deserve that level of service, so what we’re doing is continuing our push on all fronts.”