“It’s really important that people know the reason we keep them on the phone is because situations change, medical conditions change,” says Lt. Jeff Olson, Communication Division Commander, Savannah -Chatham Metro Police.
He’s talking with me about how the 911 Center operates. “We’re here for the community, there’s no question about that,” he says.
Last Friday, Olson was among several officials who along with a representative of AT&T, went to the Chatham County Commissioners meeting to talk about the 911 system. That was after a concern that a cell phone call had been sent to the wrong locality. The caller had been trying to report a shooting.
That incident prompted us to not only ask questions about cell phone use but the 911 Center itself.
First, the authorized strength is 102 staff (for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.) Currently, they’re down ten positions, but Olson says he’s in the process of filling those vacancies.
Up to 1,900 calls are received every day. About half of those end up being emergency calls handled by 911 operators. “Once 911 calls are answered, that particular communications officer is committed to having to complete that call before they continue to the next call,” says Olson.
He says the operator is not allowed to put a caller on hold and normally asks a series of questions to determine the severity of the emergency. “which helps us get information that is essential to the response and the safety of the first responder. So that can take some time,” Olson told me.
We showed him a couple of comments from our Facebook page. One man saying he had waited 45 minutes for an officer to come to his home. Olson says calls have to be prioritized. He used the example of a serious traffic accident versus a theft. He says the theft is important to the homeowner but in the accident, lives may be at stake. Which is why, he says, first responders must go to the most serious calls first.
We also showed him a comment from someone who said they had call 911 but did not get an answer and that about 30 minutes later, the operator called back. Olson says that’s how it’s supposed to work. He says there is a concern any time a call cannot be answered. However if operators are busy with other callers, a person’s phone number is capture. He says operators are instructed to reach out to those callers to find out the nature of their emergency and if they still need help.
Olson did say in terms of high priority calls, that response times in the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police jurisdiction is about 10 to 12 minutes. He believes that’s a good average considering the extent of the geographical area and manpower.
In terms of answering calls, he says they try to stick to a goal of answering within 3 rings 90 percent of the time. He realizes that is not always the case, but says much of the time, it is.
He also urged callers to understand that an operator will ask questions to help you, not to slow the process. “A lot of people get frustrated with us because they want help there immediately and they think if I’m on the phone and I’m still talking then help is not coming. And that is absolutely untrue. When we have enough information to get a fire truck an ambulance or a police car rolling, we go ahead and do it.”
Olson says 911 operators feed dispatch information throughout a call and dispatch will be telling first responders basic information like address and nature of the call. He says help is often on the way while the caller is still on the line with 911.