Durham city council member, residents voice concerns with longer 911 call pick up times

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) –Durham residents are concerned about having to wait longer for someone to answer 911 calls, as the percentage of call taker vacancies in the Bull City has grown to almost 50 percent.

Durham city officials said during a city council work session on Thursday that there are 28 vacant positions out of 60 at the Durham Emergency Communications Center. That’s up from the 26 vacancies city officials said they had in May 2021, when they said there were seven people in training.

During a growing vacancy rate, the 911 call volume has also increased. In July, Durham 911 operators answered more than 27,000 calls, which is one of the busiest months the city has ever had.

As a result, some people are having to wait longer for an operator to answer when they call 911.

Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman said she was at home on Aug. 11 when a 17-year-old boy was shot at Durham Convenient Tobacco on East Main Street, just around the corner from her house.

“We heard the gunshots and then we came outside,” Freeman said.

She said she tried to call 911, but could not get through the first time.

“I know that the call hung up on me and I called right back,” Freeman said.

The second time, she said it rang for four minutes until someone finally answered.

“It was a long time before anyone picked up,” Freeman said.

Freeman’s neighbor Kosta Grammatis said he also tried to call 911, but could not get through either.

“There was a young man – a child – who was not breathing, and we knew we needed a lot of help, and we couldn’t get it,” Grammatis said.

Freeman said when a 911 operator answered, they said help was already on the way. The teenager was taken to the hospital but did not survive.

Freeman said she could not believe it took four minutes for someone to answer.

“There wasn’t anything that I could do, even as a city council member,” Freeman said. “I don’t have a ‘Bat Phone’ I can pick up and just put up a ‘Bat signal’ to get help out here.”

Freeman and Grammatis are not alone. CBS 17 has spoken with other people recently who said they also had to wait several minutes for someone to pick up.

According to data on the city of Durham’s website, during the month of July call takers answered 78 percent of calls in 15 seconds or less. Durham falls short of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) standard, which is for 90 percent of calls to be answered in 15 seconds or less.

“I recognize and take full responsibility that we are not meeting acceptable standards,” said Randy Beeman, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center.

Beeman said they have brought on 11 part-time 911 operators, which includes retirees and former employees, who can help cover some of the shifts.

He said they are also adding more hiring incentives, doubling overtime pay, and doubling the size of their academies.

Freeman said she is hoping that these changes will help Durham fill their vacant positions, as she said no one should have to wait four minutes to report an emergency.

“If 911 is all we have, we have to make sure we have our resources in place and that we’re doing what we need to do to support the system that we do have,” Freeman said. “When you’re having to wait over a minute, over two minutes, or over three minutes, that is completely unacceptable.”

City officials said they are investigating Freeman’s call to see what happened.

Durham city leaders are also looking at possibly routing some of their calls to another jurisdiction until they’re better staffed, but no final decision has been made on that yet.

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