Unanswered 911 calls prompt change in Minn.

Callers to 911 who do not get an operator within 10 seconds will hear a recorded message

By Randy Furst
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis message to return after Accent Signage callers didn't get operators.

The city of Minneapolis has altered the way it will handle emergency calls after up to six people who called 911 during last month's shooting rampage at Accent Signage Systems didn't reach operators.

The city knows of at least four people and possibly as many as six who called 911 during the incident but hung up when no one answered, said Heather Hunt, the city's director of emergency communications.

That's one of the reasons why, starting this week, callers to 911 who do not get an operator within 10 seconds will hear a recorded message telling them to stay on the line until an operator is available. The message is repeated in Spanish.

No one has faulted the police for its response to the Sept. 27 shootings by Andrew Engeldinger, who responded to his termination from the sign factory that day by killing five people, wounding three and taking his own life.

Sixteen calls about the shooting came into the 911 center, and police were on the scene 5 1/2 minutes after the first call, Hunt said. That compares with an average response time of 8 minutes 13 seconds for the highest-priority calls in 2011, Hunt said.

According to police reports, Laura Ventura, a receptionist at Accent Signage, heard gunshots and saw a wounded manager emerge from his office and tell her to call 911. But she hung up before her call could be answered.

Another employee, Battites Wesley, tried and failed to get through to 911 after watching Engeldinger kill a UPS driver and critically injure his supervisor.

Hunt said that six operators and seven dispatchers were on duty the afternoon of Sept. 27, a normal contingent for that time of day. The window of 4 to 5 p.m. window is typically the busiest for Minneapolis 911, receiving an average of 100 calls, she said, and that Thursday was no different.

"There was a violent domestic in progress in the South Side of the city that overlapped the incident," Hunt said. "We had a car driving around with a woman on the hood of the car, a theft from a car in progress ... an out-of-control teenager in school. We had shots fired in another area of the city ... someone calling about their car being stolen. ... "

"We had the news media calling in the middle of this and other administrative calls," she said.

The six operators answering the calls were joined by three dispatchers and two supervisors, Hunt said.

The first call from Accent Signage came in at 4:33 p.m. but the caller hung up after three seconds. A hangup automatically triggers a callback, but the operator got an answering machine. That triggers a second protocol: If 911 can't reach the caller, a police patrol car is dispatched.

The same person who had hung up called back and hung up again after 24 seconds.

A second call to 911 came in at 4:34 p.m. but the caller hung up after 12 seconds, before the call was answered. A third caller, also at 4:34 p.m., was transferred from the State Patrol and answered by operators after 21 seconds. A woman told operators there was a shooting at her husband's workplace.

An operator stayed on the call for five minutes. "That was a very difficult call," Hunt said, "because the woman is thinking her husband is shot inside the workplace."

Hunt said that about a year ago the city decided to drop the message that told 911 callers not to hang up because it didn't seem to make any difference. Also some callers disliked getting a recording, she said.

"I think the volume of calls we received during this incident was very high and I think if we had the recording on, we might have had a few callers that would not hang up," she said. "Only time will tell whether it will make a difference."

Other changes are in the works. In the next three years, the city plans to introduce a system that can route calls from a particular area into a single queue, where they could be handled by a special-incident dispatcher, Hunt said. Another possibility with the new system would be to allow other jurisdictions to answer the city's 911 calls if it's overwhelmed. But that requires technology that would allow other cities to dispatch Minneapolis police calls, which is not in place.

Budget cuts have reduced 911 staffing. The Emergency Services Department has 78 employees, including 64 operators and dispatchers, who maintain a 24/7 operation year-round, Hunt said. In 2004, the department had 91.5 employees.

The department initially asked Mayor R.T. Rybak to increase its staff by five but because of budget considerations scaled back its request. It asked for a budget increase that could add two employees.

"I would like to have additional staff, but I am also sensitive to the budget situation in the city," Hunt said. "My sense is even if we had three or five more people working, we would still have people waiting longer than they would like to get their calls answered."

Copyright 2012 Star Tribune

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