DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – This week a 911 operator academy started at Durham Technical Community College to help fill the vacancies at the Durham Emergency Communications Center (DECC) and other agencies across the state.
This comes after CBS 17 broke the story last year about the 911 operator shortage and how it led to a delay in 911 operators answering some calls.
CBS 17 has just received city emails through an open records request from the City of Durham which includes complaints filed by the Durham Fire Department on the DECC, as well as information about cases where there was a delay in callers getting a hold of 911.
In one email, Durham city fire officials are discussing a house fire that occurred on Duxford Court on December 24, 2021, around 5:45 a.m.
One fire official wrote to FD Battalion Chief Shawn Field on January 2 that residents of the home said it took them and neighbors 10-15 minutes to get through to 911.
CBS 17 spoke with the resident of the home, Cleo Ruffin. He said that his wife and cousin tried calling 911 but they could not get through.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, I saw some light coming through that window and I realized it was a fire,” Ruffin said. “We had to sit on the roof and wait for help. We all were calling 911 but we never got an answer.”
Ruffin said it was a neighbor down the street who finally got a hold of 911 after 10-15 minutes and another neighbor used a ladder to rescue them from the roof.
Today a concrete slab is all that’s left of their home.
“To me, the house wouldn’t have been a total loss if they would’ve come earlier and if they would’ve answered the phone,” Ruffin said. “That’s what I think.”
In an email CBS 17 obtained, Battalion Fire Chief Shawn Field said “this fire was well advanced on E9’s arrival. Earlier contact with 911, and therefore earlier dispatch and response from the fire department could have made a difference.”
On Wednesday, a city spokesperson told CBS 17 in an email that the city did investigate this case.
They found there were two calls placed to 911 about this fire. In one of the calls, the city said someone hung up after 44 seconds.
The city spokesperson said the second caller was able to get through after waiting for 33 seconds.
The city said that the call volume at the Durham 911 call center had doubled at the time of this fire.
On the day of this fire, the city spokesperson said 87 percent of calls were answered in 10 seconds or less and all calls were answered within 2 minutes.
Months after CBS 17 put in an open records request, this week we got back dozens of other emails that included information about investigations into other cases where people couldn’t get ahold of 911.
One woman said she tried calling 911 seven times about a lift assist call and couldn’t get an answer. Another woman said she was on the phone with 911 for more than 4 minutes before someone picked up.
According to emails CBS 17 was able to obtain, we counted at least 37 complaints the Durham Fire Department has filed on the DECC.
This includes the DECC sending firefighters to incorrect addresses. In other instances, the fire department said the wrong nature code was selected when responding to calls.
The DECC noted that their investigation found in some of these instances that the right protocol was followed. For instance, the caller may have given the wrong address or provided the wrong information.
However, other complaints are still under investigation.
According to the latest data on the city of Durham’s website, call pick-up times have improved.
In August 2021, 77 percent of calls were answered in 15 seconds or less, but in April of this year, 85 percent of calls were answered within 15 seconds or less.
These figures still fall short of the National Emergency Number Association’s standard, which is for 90 percent of 911 calls to be answered within 15 seconds.
Durham city officials said right now 20 of the city’s 60 positions for 911 operators are still vacant, but they said part-time staff has helped them to improve their call pick-up times.
The city urges everyone to stay on the line when calling 911 and to not hang up.
Ruffin said he hopes the new 911 academy at Durham Tech will help Durham fill their vacancies and address these issues.
“I love the City Of Durham and I want everything to get better,” Ruffin said.
Officials with Durham Tech told CBS 17 they will have back-to-back 8-week courses from now until the end of the year. Officials said they hope to train anywhere from 60 to 80 new 911 operators by the end of the year.