By Jack Fink

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says the city’s 911 call center has been understaffed for years.

“I believe it was. I think as I looked at this, I looked at it in 2012 closely, and I asked for us to staff this up.”

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Mayor Rawlings acknowledges he has heard staffing in the 911 call center was as low as seven people before on a particular shift.

Thus, the city says it’s adding a total of 12 emergency 911 call-takers each day to the schedule. The Mayor says the situation improved Friday. “I’ve been told it has been staffed up to the level that the city manager believes it needs to be.”

It’s one element of a three part solution after two residents this month say their loved ones died after 911 calls made to seek help went unanswered for extended periods of time. Rawlings says while the problem became much more serious this month, it actually began intermittently in September.

To prevent this from happening again, the city says its adding phone lines to its center to allow more 911 calls. No word yet from the city how much it will cost to add the phone lines and staffing.

The Mayor says keeping the 911 call center staffed is a challenge. “It’s a tough job. It’s a stressful job. You’ve got to stay on it, and we’ve got to do a better job of keeping it staffed up.”

T-Mobile also says it adjusted its network, but won’t reveal specifics for security reasons. But the city says it’s a change that will allow T-Mobile’s cell phone customers who are placed on hold to reach a 911 operator faster.

The Mayor believes that will also prevent a surge in calls the city has experienced. “It was doubling the calls into the call center at times. And so when those folks hung up, algorithmically, this went crazy. So this was a new curve ball we should have been on top of.”

Rawlings repeated what he and many other city officials have urged for days now: if people call 911 and are placed on hold, don’t hang up – stay on the line until a 911 operator picks up.

When asked how the city will know if its solution is working, the Mayor said, “The first test of that is Saturday night. Saturday nights have more 911 calls. We’ll see how we get through Saturday night.”

The city has said T-Mobile’s engineers will stay in Dallas for the next two weeks to ensure this situation doesn’t repeat itself. According to city officials, other cell phone carriers haven’t experienced the same problem as T-Mobile.

On Saturday, Bridget Alex says her six-month-old son Brandon died after his babysitter tried calling 911 three times. The final time, Alex says the babysitter was on hold for 31 minutes. By that time, Alex says she arrived home and drove her son to the hospital. But he died nearly two hours after the first 911 call.

Dallas Police and Child Protective Services are investigating the death, and the Collin County Medical Examiner says it may take weeks to determine a cause of death. At the time Alex’s babysitter was trying to get through to 911, the city has said 422 calls were placed on hold. Between 3-11 p.m. that day, Deputy Police Chief Jesse Reyes says the city received 5,352 911 calls.

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During the average weekend night, Reyes there are about 2,800 911 calls.

Another resident, David Taffet says his husband died Monday, March 6 after he was placed on hold when he called 911.

Chief Reyes says between 3-11 p.m. that day, the city received 4,802 911 calls, much higher than the average during that same time on a weekday.

State Representative Helen Giddings, Democrat of DeSoto, says a similar story happened to her earlier this month.

When she called 911 after a friend’s medical emergency, she was placed on hold for 26 minutes. “It was something out of a movie. It was unbelievable. I had never, ever experienced anything like that in my life. I could not believe it was happening.”

Giddings says Mayor Rawlings responded quickly to her concern. While she says her friend spent some time in ICU, he is now home and feeling better.
She wants to make sure this problem doesn’t happen again. “I think it begs for not only a short-term solution, but a long-term solution in the event such a thing should happen again.”

Giddings suggested the city reach an agreement with neighboring cities to take on Dallas’ 911 calls if the situation happens again.

City officials said Friday they don’t have any such agreements with neighboring cities.

In an Op-Ed piece written in the New York Times in November, 2015, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, warned about 911 call centers nationwide falling behind. “Many local 911 call centers can’t receive a text, photo or video from a person in need — capabilities that are considered commonplace for any American with a smartphone. Worse, while our nation makes the transition to broadband networks, too many of our 911 call centers rely on decades-old telephone technology – technology that is no longer being supported by commercial vendors and prone to failure.”

City of Dallas officials say they are now planning to upgrade to Next Gen 911 (NG911), but haven’t requested bids just yet.

In his Op-Ed, Wheeler said with the NG911 system, “Emergency responders in the future will be able to get video, maps, and other information that can improve response times. Also, in a large-scale crisis, 911 call centers equipped with NG911 technology will be better able to handle the sudden surges of emergency calls that can overwhelm a center today.”

City officials say upgrading hardware and software in the city’s 911 call center could cost millions of dollars.

Mayor Rawlings says aside from 911, the entire city needs a technology upgrade. “We have to be a smart city. We’ve got to invest in technology. This is something I said three years ago. We need to bring-in the best and the brightest and tell us what we need to do. Now this is an expensive proposition for the whole city.”

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