Dangerous Delays: 911 calls for emergency help in Tulsa seeing delays

TULSA - Shortly after gunfire erupted in a midtown neighborhood in February, dispatchers were flooded with 911 calls.

Several neighbors grabbed their phones to dial for help, including Jillian Ihloff.

"What if they were right there and a bullet went through the wall?" said Ihloff.

All the mother of two could think about was, "Oh my gosh, my babies!"

She immediately called 911.

"It just rang and rang," she said.

And while she waited, "I thought, 'OK, I wonder if something really bad has happened,'" said Ihloff.

Two minutes later someone answered. Ihloff can't believe it took that long.

"You just have that extreme fear of not knowing where exactly it's coming from, what is going on and I haven't gotten a hold of anybody. My babies are in the other room," said Ihloff.

We took what we recently uncovered to the city of Tulsa. They say this time, an operator called in sick.

"In this particular case, had there been a fourth call-taker on duty that call would've been handled. But for the rest of the evening that fourth call-taker would've been unnecessary," said Terry Baxter, the director of the 911 Center.

Baxter says the city staffs the call center based on trends of when it's expected to be busiest.

But 2NEWS looked through call records over the past year and found operators answer police calls in an average of 26 seconds. That's more than two and and a half times as long as the national standard set in place by the National Emergency Number Association, the organization 911 centers across the country look to for high standards and integrity.

It's a story 2NEWS first started looking into a year ago, when we uncovered the problem with overtime at the 911 Center and brought it to the city.

(Read the Your Tax Money Wasted? investigation. If you're on a phone or tablet, copy and paste http://bit.ly/tulsaot into your browser)

At the time, 2NEWS found some operators almost doubling their salaries with overtime. It was mandatory in some cases because of under-staffing.

Because of our investigation, city councilors started asking questions and more information came out. The shortage wasn't just an overtime issue, it was leading to delayed calls.

The mayor promised change.

The city has since hired 15 more operators and increased salaries. So far 10 people have finished training. Baxter admits even when all 15 are on the floor, "That may not be enough to really do what we would like to do," he said.

In Ihloff's case, she called back 15 minutes later after hearing gunshots a second time. This time, she was on hold for four minutes. The national standard is 10 seconds, that's 24 times higher.

"That's not good enough. It's not good enough," said Baxter.

Baxter admits improvements will take time.

"It's a personal liability if it's not a legal liability because I feel horrible when something happens and we can't be there as fast as we know we could because we just didn't have the people to handle it," said Baxter.

It's a concern Tulsa City Councilor G.T. Bynum shares. Now he's demanding changes after we showed him the results of our recent investigation.

"I continue to hear from people about this. I hear from constituents. I hear from former colleagues on the City Council, certainly Channel 2 has been very active on this and making me aware of concerns you all have heard about," said Bynum.

Bynum has asked city leaders to speed up plans on having other operators answer non-emergency calls outside business hours. For example, right now the center answers animal welfare calls after 5 p.m. Getting someone else to answer those calls instead of having 911 do it, would drop emergency dispatchers' call load.

It's progress Ihloff is anxious to see, as she continues to think about her children.

"I'm their mom. I'm there to protect them and to do whatever I can to protect them every second of my life," said Ihloff.

The 911 Center is hiring a training coordinator who will train operators to the national standard.

They also hired a quality assurance person to monitor operators. Baxter hopes to have everyone trained by the end of summer. It takes months to train people on the system. Plus, they say they haven't had a lot of applicants so far.

We should mention that on average, we did find over the past year, 911 Center operators answered fire calls in less than 13 seconds on average and medical calls in less than nine seconds.

The center says the problem lies in not having enough operators for police calls.

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