The 911 emergency call system in Portland, Oregon, is “broken,” officials say, and callers who need help are often waiting more than two minutes for assistance, even though emergency calls are supposed to be answered in around 15 seconds.
“People calling 911 to report a Sept. 4 shootout at a Pearl District restaurant and other emergencies in the following half-hour waited an average of more than 7.5 minutes before a dispatcher answered,” the Oregonian reported. “The lengthy hold time is far above the national standard of 15 to 20 seconds for 911 calls and the latest example of serious problems plaguing the city’s emergency dispatch system.”
An official with Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications called the situation “horrible” and “broken,” and said the agency’s own statistics show “an average hold time of a minute. But it also shows a dramatic increase of 911 calls on hold for two minutes or longer starting in late spring and summer.”
“Another striking jump of calls on hold for more than five minutes occurred in May and July, according to bureau figures released to the newsroom,” the Oregonian reported. “Compared to March, when only eight 911 calls took more than five minutes to answer, that number increased to 221 in May and more than doubled to 574 in July.”
Portland, meanwhile, is struggling with an increase in crime. Homicides are still low compared to most major cities, but they are spiking.
“Homicides in Portland increased from 28 in 2019 to 54 in 2020,” Portland’s KGW reports. “Among cities similar in size to Portland, Seattle saw an increase from 34 to 53 homicides, in Minneapolis, a spike from 48 to 82, and Milwaukee saw homicides increase from 97 to 190 from 2019 to 2020.”
As of May, per the Seattle Times, “37 people had died in Portland homicides this year, a more-than-sevenfold increase compared with the first five months of last year, and a stark contrast to Seattle, a larger city, where 11 homicides had been recorded as of late May. So far this year, the victims have disproportionately been people of color.”
At the same time, Portland is struggling to keep police officers. Just weeks ago, dozens of Portland police officers resigned en masse from the city’s rapid response team, “citing a lack of support from city leaders. The move to disband the unit came one day after Portland Officer Cody Budworth was indicted and accused of striking a protester in the head last summer with a baton. It marked the first time a city police officer faced prosecution over striking or firing at someone during a protest,” per Yahoo News.
The city’s emergency communications department is also struggling to keep staff, with a dozen retirements or resignations over the past several months.
“We’re at a tipping point now. It’s become unmanageable,” one city official said. “The system is broken.”
Portland officials have proposed having 311, the city’s information line, handle calls that do not necessarily require an emergency response, but 311 answers calls only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.