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N4T Investigators: 911, Please Hold – Update

TUCSON – Leaders at the City of Tucson 911 call center say they are seeing some improvements with wait times.

Twenty people transferred to the police priority queue, which is for the most dangerous calls, waited more than 1 minute in January. In April, that number dropped to 4.

Geoff Kuhn has worked emergency communications in the city almost 7 years. He admits the department has problems.

“It’s certainly stressful,” Kuhn said. “It’s concerning. It’s not the service we’d like to provide to our community, and that’s why we’ve put so much effort, resources and time into solving this.”

Initial calls are answered almost immediately. They are usually transferred depending on the type of emergency. Eight callers waited more than 14 minutes for police service last month. The 3 longest waits in April were not dangerous situations. One caller was canceling a request for police service. Another caller was following up on an identity theft report. Another caller wanted help with a domestic dispute over property.

“We prioritize those calls like any dispatch center would,” Kuhn said. “And for the most part, we can predict those. We know that they are very low-level calls that in most instances can wait.”

The longest wait was 14 minutes and 58 seconds.

“I don’t believe that it’s necessarily dangerous,” Kuhn said. “There are certainly risks. And they are risks that we’re not happy with. But we triage out those immediate emergencies.”

The percentage of police calls answered within 1 minute has remained fairly stable over the last 3 months, ranging from 68 to 71 percent. In January, 78 percent of police transfers were answered within 1 minute.

The Tucson City Council created the Emergency Communications Department last December. It became its own department, not part of the police or fire departments. The chiefs of the police and fire department are still working closely with emergency communications to fix the problems.

Employees are allowed to work overtime. Former employees who work in other city departments are coming back to pick up shifts.

The department is hiring as quickly as possible. A new class of 10 started last week.

“We only have a limited number of trainers,” Kuhn said. “We have to continue to provide the service that we do. And so we have to strategically time how we bring in classrooms."

The goal is to eliminate transfers. All initial calltakers are being trained to handle police, fire and medical emergencies.

Almost 80 percent of calls are for police service, and those are the calls that are holding. Police calltakers are being trained to answer fire and medical calls.

“We’re strategically doing that,” Kuhn said, “in much smaller numbers. And we make sure that we’re able to back-fill those, so that we don’t diminish staffing in order to accomplish that cross-training.”

Every other agency in Pima County has a police-trained calltaker answer the initial call. The calls are transferred for fire and medical emergencies.

The City of Tucson does not have any emergency communications positions currently posted on its website, but new classes will be continuously hired until the department is fully staffed.

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