Durham answers 911 concerns

Some calls rang 30 times

Staff WriterDecember 29, 2005 

About two weeks ago, Karl Whitney heard a loud noise that sounded like a collision near his Hillandale Road home.

So he dialed 911. And the phone rang and rang and rang.

Whitney said he attempted to call Durham emergency officials three times using his cell and home phones. The line rang about 20 times each with no answer, he said. It took a call to Orange County dispatchers, whose number he found in a phone book, to alert someone of the car accident. An Orange County dispatcher picked up on the first ring.

"I was frustrated and a little concerned that this might be a real problem if I was to experience an emergency," Whitney said. "I was perplexed and embarrassed for Durham County when I was able to get through on the first ring for Orange County. It made me wonder where my tax dollars go."

Residents reported the same problem to city officials in October. At that time, a technical problem was traced to an incoming line. The situation prevented some calls from reaching dispatchers, but officials said the problem was fixed.

Unanswered calls are rare, said Jim Soukup, Durham's 911 director, but an overload of calls can happen no matter how many dispatchers are available. Durham dispatchers received about 100 calls in one hour one day last week. Durham's 911 center averages about 1,000 calls a day, and the goal is that each call is answered in three rings or less.

Soukup said that their success rate is 90 percent, "and the city of Durham is looking to get better at that," he said.

The county wants to improve that rate to 95 percent in fiscal 2005-06, and it approved the hiring of four new dispatchers to help reach that goal. Two dispatchers were hired this year and are on the job, and two more are completing final tests. Soukup said he expects to be fully staffed in January, though he would like eventually to add 16 more dispatchers to the center.

With the four new positions, the center will have 52 dispatchers who work no more than four 12-hour shifts a week. No fewer than seven dispatchers are on duty per shift. Soukup said there is no shortage of dispatchers at Durham's 911 center.

But not having someone answer a 911 call is a scary thought for Susan Caddell. When she dialed 911 twice after a vehicle accident near her home about two weeks ago, the phone rang about 30 times each with no pickup. But after she hung up a second time, a 911 dispatcher called her. And later, a police officer came to her door investigating a 911 hang-up.

"The good is that calls weren't ignored," said Caddell, who has dialed 911 in the past without a problem. "The situation was one of those things [that] if someone had a heart attack or was bleeding, it would've been scary for someone to not answer 911."

(Staff writer Samiha Khanna contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Stanley B. Chambers Jr. can be reached at 956-2426 or stan.chambers@newsobserver.com.

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