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Anne Arundel Residents Claim 911 Calls Get Put on Hold

Residents across the Maryland county are reporting instances in which they are forced to wait several minutes before they’re connected with a 911 operator. Improving call center retention and efficiency could help alleviate the issue.

(TNS) — Arnold, Md., resident Kirsten Neumann's daughter Vivian is 4 years old and has been in remission for a year from stage four neuroblastoma — a cancer that grows in immature nerve tissue. Vivian is participating in a clinical trial for a drug to treat the illness.

On Feb. 16, the day after she got a shot as part of the trial, Vivian had a low-grade fever. Neumann gave her Tylenol and a few minutes later Vivian started choking, turning blue and seizing. Neumann stuck her finger down Vivian's throat to induce vomiting, which helped the choking, but she continued to seize. Neumann called 911.

"I was greeted with, 'I'm sorry, we're experiencing a high call volume. Please hold.' Elevator music came on and then it disconnected," Neumann said.

She called again and the same thing happened, she said. She then asked the babysitter to call 911 and she eventually got through five minutes after Neumann's original call. An ambulance was sent to the house.

"My daughter ended up seizing for 20 full minutes which is insane," Neumann said.

Vivian stopped seizing in the ambulance after being given medicine.

Though Neumann lives around the corner from a fire station, the ambulance based at that station was attending to a car crash at the time and had to be rerouted back to her home in Arnold from Earleigh Heights in Severna Park.

The 3 p.m. crash on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway involved four vehicles, according to police, who noted emergency lines were flooded with calls about the collision.

"On that day, all of our operational needs were met," said Anne Arundel County Police Department spokeswoman Lt. Jacklyn Davis, attributing the hold to the "horrible timing" of the crash.

Others in the County Recall Similar Experiences

Neumann reached out to local politicians who said a case like this i — a caller having to remain on hold with 911 — is rare. But when Neumann posted about her experience on the Annapolis Moms Facebook group she quickly received more than 140 comments from others in the group, many detailing similar experiences.

"[There were] so many stories," Neumann said. "That is absolutely terrifying."

One of the moms in the group, Liz Stephens, told the Capital Gazette about a similar experience she had two years ago in Millersville. Her husband got several ant bites while doing yard work and went to take a shower. He fainted in the shower and hit his head. As his head started to bleed she called 911 and was put on hold. She hung up and called again and was again put on hold. She said she shook him until he regained consciousness and drove him to the hospital. On the drive to the hospital, 911 returned her call, five minutes after her original call, she estimates.

"I was shocked. [I'm] pretty sure my jaw literally dropped because I've never heard of 911 putting people on hold," Stephens said in a message. "A lot can happen in five minutes." She said her husband was fine, just very sensitive to ant bites, as it turns out.

Another mom told an almost identical experience to Neumann's. Amy Mahaney's 1-year-old daughter had a seizure in 2016 in Edgewater. She called 911 and got an automated message. She hung up and called again and got the same message. She said she remained on hold for about five minutes until someone picked up.

"I honestly thought I must have dialed 911 incorrectly because how on earth could I have been directed to an automated system to wait on hold? My daughter's lips were turning blue," she said in a message. "When they finally answered I was hysterically pleading for them to help my daughter somehow so that she wouldn't die."

Mahaney's daughter seized for about 10 minutes and stopped while Mahaney spoke to a 911 operator . She said she lives in fear of having another emergency and not being able to get immediate help.

"Any time she's sick, I'm always worried about it happening again. PTSD I guess, although that sounds dramatic," she said.

High Turnover Among 911 Operators

When Neumann read about her neighbors' stories she became even more motivated to help. But there doesn't seem to be one clear solution.

"It's a quite complex problem," said County Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, an Arnold Republican.

While every call center post at the police department headquarters stays staffed, the county is still hiring call takers and dispatchers, who are difficult to keep, Davis said.

"I don't know if it's salary, if it's hours, if it's stress, if it's the technology. I'm not sure what the fix would be to fill those positions and keep them long term," Fiedler said.

Davis said the job tends to take a toll on workers. She said that after call takers are hired, they go through six to nine months of training before starting the job. After the training, some find they can't handle the work and leave.

"It's an extremely stressful job, it's very demanding, and it's very daunting," Davis said.

Proposal For a Consolidated Call Center

One possible solution involves call centers. The county has two separate call centers for 911 — one for police and another for fire and ambulance. All calls go first to the police center and, if needed, get routed to the fire and ambulance center later.

One proposal being floated is a consolidated call center where all call takers are together and are trained on any type of call. However, Fiedler said this alternative would be quite expensive — it could require a new building or new use of a county space and potentially tens of millions of dollars.

"As far as an ideal situation with a new facility, we're a bit away from that from a budget perspective and laying out all the details," Fiedler said.

She said she'd be interested in exploring a short-term fix of bringing the two groups of call takers together temporarily in one of the existing spaces so they can work closer together.

County Executive Steuart Pittman said a consolidated call center is being discussed.

"The benefit of a joint 911 call center is the staff can support each other," Pittman said, adding that his administration is also working on integrating the Office of Emergency Management into the call taking process for smoother operations. "We are one of the only jurisdictions that hasn't done it."

Once a call reaches the 911 center at the Anne Arundel County Police Department headquarters in Millersville, the average wait time is six seconds, according to Davis. On the day Neumann called, the average wait time was five seconds, but the car crash jammed phone lines for a period during the day.

State law requires that 911 call centers be equipped to answer within a daily average of 10 seconds.

Howard County's fire, police and fire/EMS operators are housed under one roof in the police department. Baltimore City's 911 center is part of the city's fire department, and operates out of the city's police headquarters. Baltimore County has an independent 911 Communications Center.

However, Pittman said a consolidated center wouldn't have helped Neumann because all the call takers were occupied with the crash.

Other Solutions In The Works

Pittman's solution in the nearer future is paying the call takers higher salaries and hiring more of them.

"In this situation the number of call takers was exactly the number of call takers they have on other days," Pittman said. "All of them were working on something else and that tells us that we need to look at increasing the number of call takers overall and review how often that happens."

Fiedler also suggested a public-relations campaign urging people not to call 911 if they see others calling for the same incident to avoid crowding the line.

"But you also have to balance that with, you don't want to do a push to not call 911 and then have nobody call 911. So it's a variety of factors creating the situation," Fiedler said. "I don't have the answer right now, but it is a concern that is on my radar."

Legislation was introduced at Monday night's County Council meeting aimed at easing the staffing issue.

"One of the problems [with 911 staffing] is there's no room for growth professionally, so people come in, they get trained, they do the job, they realize there is nowhere to go and then they leave," said Pete Baron, director of government relations for the Office of the County Executive.

The bill creates a hierarchy in the job with roles designated Operator I and Operator II that allow people new to the job to move up as they gain more experience. The council will review it in the coming weeks.

The state legislature is also looking into improving 911 operations. Three bills got public hearings in the General Assembly Tuesday including a bill to provide workers' compensation to 911 specialists with PTSD and a bill establishing a statewide 311 system for nonemergencies. Sen. Ed Reilly, who represents District 33, where Neumann lives, co-sponsored all three bills.

"I'm looking at this very seriously because emergency management is something that this county has neglected in the past and we're building out to do better," Pittman said.

The police department encourages those with non-emergency situations, such as abandoned cars, to use the non-emergency line at 410-222-8610. Calls to that number route to the same center, but are handled at a lower priority than emergency calls.

(c)2022 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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