- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2013

A spike in 911 call volume is partially to blame for why a woman was placed on hold for more than a minute while her Northwest D.C. home was broken into and she struggled with the intruder, a spokeswoman for the Office of Unified Communications said Monday.

The union that represents 911 operators said that’s only part of the problem, though, and warned that more people could end up being put on hold while trying to make emergency calls if staffing is not increased.

Seventeen call takers were scheduled to work Saturday but with people being out on either scheduled or unscheduled leave only 13 were working, said Lee Blackmon, president of the National Association of Government Employees Local R3-07. Of those 13 employees on duty, one person was on a break and two others were in the bathroom at 1:19 p.m. Saturday when Kathleen Burke tried to call 911 to report that a man had broken into her home, communications agency spokeswoman Wanda Gattison said.

Mrs. Burke called 911 after she heard someone break into her home and found a man rifling through a desk, she told WRC-TV (Channel 4), which first reported the incident. She got into a tussle with the man and tried to call police after she chased him out of the house. She was on hold for 1 minute and 8 seconds before her call was connected to a 911 operator, the communications agency said.

“If this intruder in my house had a weapon there would have been more than sufficient time for this to escalate into a life-or-death situation,” Mrs. Burke told WRC.

After Mrs. Burke’s call went through, police arrived within 4 minutes, Ms. Gattison said.

Saturday saw higher than average number of calls, which, coupled with three call takers being on break, caused the problem, she said. On an average day, 911 call takers would handle approximately 3,800 calls, but on Saturday they took 4,200 calls.

“It just kind of one of those perfect storms where you had calls coming in at the same time,” Ms. Gattison said, adding that as call takers handled Mrs. Burke’s call they were also handling calls for the sound of gunshots in the 7th Police District and several medical calls.

But the problem extended beyond just Mrs. Burke, according to the union. From 1 to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, 175 calls came into the District’s 911 system. Fifteen of those calls were abandoned — meaning callers hung up before their call was answered, Ms. Blackmon said.

“This is why we’ve been trying to get the agency to recruit more personnel,” Ms. Blackmon said. “We need more staffing, not longer hours.”

Employees of the 911 center recently spoke out about staffing issues during a D.C. Council committee hearing and lamented a plan to extend employees shifts from 10 hours to 12 hours. At the hearing, agency Director Jennifer A.J. Greene told council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, that more staffing was not needed.

“This is not a problem of resources. This is an issue of how the staff were either on or off during that time,” Mr. Wells said Monday, recounting the assurances made by Ms. Greene.

Mr. Wells has requested a report on Saturday’s incident and response from Paul A. Quander Jr., the city’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, but said overall that he has not gotten the impression that the issue was systemic.

“This may have been a fluke,” Mr. Wells said. “I believe [Mrs. Burke] was placed on hold for just over a minute, but that was a minute too long.”