News and Analysis

Denver 911 Call Center Is In Critical State, Emergency Callers Are Left On Hold As Vaccine Mandate Discipline Looms
The San Francisco 911 Emergency Call Center on Mon. July 31, 2017 in San Francisco, Ca. (Photo By Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

A 911 caller in Denver described the experience as “terrifying” when her emergency call was left on hold. Karen Schuster dialed in to report a car accident and was answered by a pre-recorded message: “You have reached Denver 911 communications. Do not hang up. All call takers are currently busy. Please stay on the line for the next call taker.”

She anticipates she was on hold for two to three minutes, far surpassing nationwide standards, which require 90% of calls to be answered within 10 seconds, and 95% to be answered within 20 seconds. Schuster hung up and called back, only to receive the same disturbing message. “I was angry because I think this is a basic service that we should be having here in Denver as part of an emergency response,” she said.    

First responders eventually arrived after another witness on the scene was able to get through to an agent. But Schuster’s frightening experience is becoming more common throughout the city. In September, average callers to Denver 911 were kept on hold for 23 seconds, and over 1,000 emergency callers had to wait for a response for at least two minutes.  

Denver’s Director of Emergency Communications Andrew Dameron shared his concern with CBS Denver: “The possibility that even one person could wind up not getting the help they need in the time they need it absolutely makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Dameron’s discomfort reflects a growing shortage of emergency call center employees across the state and the nation. While 93 call center representatives are needed to adequately handle incoming emergency calls in Denver, only 61 call takers are currently working during a time the city is seeing a surge in emergency calls, averaging more than 181,000 calls each month — the highest volume in over five years.

It’s doubtful emergency response times and labor conditions will improve in the foreseeable future. Millions of jobs remain unfilled across the nation, with a record-breaking number of employees who quit jobs in September (i.e., 4.3 million). That number includes many 911 agents who left due to high job stress and low pay. With vaccine mandates spreading throughout all industries and states, exacerbated staffing shortages continue to loom on the horizon.

As of Sept. 30, Denver’s mandate for employees to be fully vaccinated went into effect, impacting city and county workers and those who work in “high-risk settings” (including healthcare and education employees). According to Fox31 Denver, “The number of sworn [first responder] personnel in Denver who resigned or retired over the employee vaccine mandate totals 27”, and “Another 34 employees face possible discipline for not complying with the mandate …”

Discipline hearings were set to begin last week, which could result in further terminations. Even if the additional loss of employees is marginal, it’s clear that the city is not in a position to lose any more of its emergency responders.

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