ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — On March 26, Frank Garabo called 9-1-1 after his wife, Dee, was exhibiting signs of extremely high blood pressure.
Thanks to Dee’s long-term health concerns, the Garabos are self-described frequent fliers of the county’s emergency services and speak highly of the dispatchers, firefighters and EMTs that have assisted them over the years.
The call on March 26 wasn’t like the rest, though. Frank dutifully dialed the familiar three numbers – and listened as the phone rang.
“After two minutes, there was no answer, so I hung up,” he said.
The same situation played out in mid-June, when a woman – who asked to not be identified in this story – was chased by a gunman in a road rage incident.
“He followed us… and started shooting at our car,” she recalled. “It was like nonstop shooting, and I tried to call 911 and they did not answer at all.”
The boyfriend’s leg was hit, she said. So was one of their four car tires. They managed to escape and drive themselves to a hospital, dialing the emergency line three times.
“Thank God that we had at least three other working tires because we would have definitely been dead,” she said.
A strained system
Those two stories are among a pattern seen in Orange County since the springtime that prompted the county to investigate the 9-1-1 center’s pick-up times.
According to internal documents, the Orange County Sheriff’s office dispatchers picked up 80.5% of calls within 10 seconds this past June, short of the 90% state guidelines require.
In fact, the documents noted the dispatch center had not met the state guidelines since September 2021.
“Anytime that we’re we fall short of our goals, it’s a concern,” Undersheriff Mark Canty said.
Canty explained that the department has been plagued by two simultaneous issues that have put a strain on the system: staffing shortages caused by low pay, high stress and an increase in the availability of remote work caused by the pandemic, and a rapidly increasing call volume.
In June 2023, Orange County received 50% more 9-1-1 calls than June 2022, according to a letter Canty wrote to Orange County 9-1-1 coordinator Tanya Harris at the end of July.
Year-over-year, Canty said the county’s call volume was up 28%.
Canty attributed much of the increase to a surge of accidental calls created by recent technology improvements. Phones will now dial 9-1-1 if buttons are pressed a certain number of times or in certain sequences, or if the phone registers enough shaking or a fall.
The same goes for smart watches, which Canty himself said he experienced while working out at the gym one day.
“You’d be surprised the number of calls that we get where you get the phone call and all you hear in the background is screaming, because someone’s on a roller coaster and they’re having a great time,” he said.
The problem, he said, is each of those calls needs to be followed up on. Sometimes, the person answers and explains it was an accident. Even though it ties up valuable dispatcher time, it’s the preferred outcome.
Many times, though, the person simply hangs up when they realize what they’ve done. It creates further problems for the dispatch center, because each of those phone calls needs to be returned to ensure the person isn’t actually in danger.
“The more you hang up, the more you just put that call back in the queue and someone’s got to call you back,” Canty explained. “When you call 911… if you call and we don’t answer in three seconds, please don’t hang up, please stay on the line.”
Easing the stress
Orange County isn’t the only jurisdiction to miss the state or national standards for picking up 9-1-1 calls. Canty confirmed Orlando was dealing with similar problems.
In May, WFTV’s sister station in Jacksonville published a story reporting the average wait time for a 9-1-1 call had increased to 22 seconds, and more than 500 callers had hung up after waiting too long.
WSOC, a sister station in Charlotte, reported only 60% of emergency calls there were being answered within 10 seconds in December.
Canty said to his knowledge, Orange County’s failure to pick up in a timely fashion had not led to anyone’s death.
However, the sheriff’s office is already undertaking numerous steps to climb back into compliance with the statutes. Canty’s letter listed 19 different measures in discussion, in progress or already completed.
One measure raised dispatchers’ starting pay from $16.88 to $19.56 per hour, plus an additional $2,000 signing bonus.
Current employees received pay raises and additional overtime pay, he wrote. The department also doubled the differential for working overnight and increased the mandatory number of overtime hours employees are required to work each month.
Ex-employees with certifications have been brought in to work part-time, and Canty said deputies assigned to administrative or light-duty work have been assisting with non-emergency and support duties.
“A lot of the support functions that are going on, we’re filling with other people to put dispatchers back on the floor,” he explained.
To deal with accidental calls and hang-ups, the county has also upgraded their automated callback system and asked the county to redesign the non-emergency phone system.
Canty noted an uptick in recruiting – a result of major pushes from his communications and recruiting departments – and said he was “confident” performance would return to pre-pandemic levels, when the agency met state standards 72 months in a row.
“Our dispatchers do a phenomenal job,” he said. “They have a very important job that they don’t get a lot of credit for. It is it is very stressful, but it is a great opportunity for someone to help their community.”
Words like that – and the actions Canty listed – reassured the Garabos, who repeatedly insisted the system has been great to them.
“The first responders who do respond are excellent on the phone, and in person,” Dee Garabo said.
The woman who drove her boyfriend to the hospital appeared torn. On one hand, she said she was happy to hear actions had been taken, since before she was given a detailed description, she said she thought it was all just deflection.
On the other hand, she still held a fundamental distrust of the 911 system.
“When I found out more details about the case, I had gotten a text message saying if there’s an emergency, call 9-1-1,” she recalled. “What’s the point? They’re not going to help you.”
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