- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Portland’s Fourth of July hotline was supposed to let residents report illegal fireworks and give police better leads for enforcement.

But as it turns out, the new hotline - 503-823-BOOM - may have been less boom and more bust.

Of 7,276 calls to the hotline from July 1 through early July 5, just 1,386 - or fewer than one in five - was completed. The rest were either turned away because the line was overloaded or the caller hung up while on hold.

Fire officials say they weren’t prepared for the demand and may make changes next year. Some residents say officials should have done more to make the hotline accessible.

“We thought it was a great idea. I think we hit two of the goals that we set out for,” Lt. Rich Tyler, a spokesman for Portland Fire & Rescue, said Tuesday. “Is there room for improvement? Always.”

Fire officials provided statistics to The Oregonian/OregonLive this week after spending about three weeks compiling numbers.

Officials still don’t have a full picture of the hotline’s impact. For instance, Tyler couldn’t say how many of the 1,386 completed calls resulted in enforcement.

Six officers were assigned to respond to hotline complaints July 4. Officers issued 84 citations totaling $57,000 for the whole fireworks season, compared with an annual average for the previous two years of 141 citations totaling $75,000.

Despite the high share of incomplete calls, Tyler said the hotline did meet a goal of keeping Portlanders from calling the city’s non-emergency number to report illegal fireworks. Peak-hour calls to that number dropped by about 350 compared with Independence Day 2014.

That, in turn, freed 911 dispatchers to focus on high-priority calls.

Still, the decrease was more than exceeded by calls to the hotline - more than 6,000 on July 4 alone.

“Could we have predicted that kind of response?” Tyler said. “I don’t know that we could have.”

Mary Anne Sanford, a resident of the Kenton neighborhood, was among Portlanders who couldn’t get through.

Neighbors began launching illegal fireworks about 10:30 p.m., upsetting one of her two dogs. Sanford said she tried calling the hotline a couple of times after they refused to stop.

“I was hoping they’d be fired up and ready. They had to know everybody in town was going to call at the same time,” she said.

Portland Fire & Rescue launched the hotline July 1 and, for the vast majority of the time, calls were rerouted to the non-emergency line. The city spent $447.50 configuring the hotline.

Officials dedicated extra staffing for peak hours - 6 p.m. July 4 through 1 a.m. July 5.

They set up six phone lines staffed by firefighters. Two dispatchers entered complaints into the city’s computerized call-tracking system. The hotline also placed 40 callers into an on-hold queue.

During peak hours, just 688 calls were completed.

Officials say 2,926 calls were “deflected” - leaving residents unable to get through - during that time. And 2,346 calls went unaccounted for.

“They were in the queue but then decided to hang up before they talked to somebody,” Tyler said.

Fire officials said they don’t know how many more employees or phone lines would have been needed to handle the call volume. They’ll work with the Bureau of Emergency Communications and the Bureau of Technology Services next year to come up with a new plan, he said.

“We’d love to have a 100 percent completion rate,” he said. “But is that possible? We don’t know.”

They’ll have to weigh the cost of employee overtime, for one thing, against the benefit to taxpayers.

Public awareness of extremely dry weather probably hampered use of fireworks this year, Tyler said. That could make next year a bigger challenge for the hotline.

But he chuckled when asked if the city’s first year with the hotline proved more boom or bust.

“Everything has to start somewhere,” he said. “I’m going to call it 823-BOOM.”


Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com

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