The Austin Chronicle

Chronically Understaffed Austin 911 Call Center Can't Handle Peak Call Times

This is 911, can you hold please?

By Maggie Q. Thompson, March 17, 2023, News

While Austin's police union and the city duke it out over the level of civilian oversight the Austin Police Department should operate under in the new police contract – with arguments about retention and police brutality threaded through those negotiations – there's at least one public safety issue everybody agrees on: When you call 911, you should not be placed on a 30-minute hold.

But that is exactly what's happening during peak 911 call periods in Austin (think New Year's Eve and last month when a bunch of adolescents blocked off the intersection of South Lamar and Barton Springs Road to do donuts with their cars). This weekend is likely to cause similar problems, given the influx of people to Austin for South by Southwest.

The problem at the 911 call center is the same problem city departments are dealing with across the board – understaffing. But dispatch is hurting worse than most, with about half of its positions vacant for months now. "In an emergency, every second counts," an APD spokesperson told the Chron­icle. "The best way to reduce call wait times is to get more 911 call takers."

In one deadly example, Duván Betan­courth-Gonzalez, a 34-year-old Colombian American father of two young children, bled out and died in June after being stabbed in a robbery. Betancourth-Gonzalez called 911 as he bled. Authori­ties said there was a "language barrier" because he only spoke Spanish. It took dispatch several minutes to figure out where the crime occurred, Univision reported. APD dispatchers and call takers do use LanguageLine, a 24/7 translation service that charges the city by the minute, for all non-English-speaking callers. When asked if having Spanish-speaking call takers in the room would reduce waits, the APD spokesperson told us that LanguageLine resolves that problem, though depending on how long it takes to connect to that line, it may extend the call time.

APD says filling 911 positions is "a top priority," but a mandated multistep process candidates must go through slows down the process. After passing the initial criminal history and interviews, they do a 34-page Texas Commission on Law Enforcement background packet, drug screen, and psych exam. APD has added two new recruiting/hiring positions, streamlined the application process, and is placing ads to recruit more call takers.

Especially when the 911 call center is half-staffed, callers can call 311 to report non­emergencies. And this month, APD unveiled its enhanced, which allows callers to file reports online and "helps the report get to an investigator faster and prevents the reporter from extended wait times," per APD. See our flowchart for some friendly advice on reporting crimes.

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