Denver, CO

Denver improves 911 response times by adding staff

David Heitz
Denver's emergency 911 center.City and County of Denver

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver (Denver, Colo.) Despite unusually long response times in recent months, the head of Denver's emergency 911 center says he's taking steps to answer calls faster.

The center hired more people, said Andrew Dameron, Denver 911's executive director, during an update to the council during Wednesday's Public Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee meeting.

"The Great Resignation affected us like everyone," Dameron said.

When they leave, people give the following reasons: "I'm tired of being yelled at, I'm tired of the stress, and I just want to go do something else."

Dameron likened 911 call takers to flight attendants who get punched out on airplanes. People are frustrated by the pandemic and have lost patience, he said.

Last month, the call center only reached a staffing level of 49 percent. This month the center is staffed at 71 percent, with 35 of 49 emergency call technician positions filled.

Pay for 911 call takers upped to $24 per hour

To help recruit new staff, the center increased starting pay to $24 per hour. It also stopped using a test that previously eliminated half the applicants.

But overtime is still mandatory. Dameron said the center could require employees to work 16 hours of overtime per week but do not.

Councilmember Amanda Sawyer wondered if the quality of service declined without the test. Dameron said it should not, and the training academy will weed out bad apples. The center also is recruiting people from a list of previously rejected applicants.

Taking 911 calls from home

Dameron noted that people want to work from home. That's something the emergency call center industry has been unable to offer.

But that's changing. The center is launching a pilot program to let entry-level call technicians take non-emergency calls from home. That change also will lighten the load of emergency 911 call takers.

The center also added perks like free Keurig coffee for employees and uses visits by Dogs from Healing Hands to relax employees.

Hanging up on phone trees

Councilmember Amanda Sandoval said it's important residents avoid phone trees, which are automated systems that function as operators. She said 311, the city's non-emergency service line, is a phone tree but never used to be. Many people hang up and dial 911 now instead, Sandoval said.

Dameron explained that the new call takers working from home would sometimes replace the phone tree. Dameron said that there aren't enough people to answer the phone live every time.

The center is working on several initiatives to revolutionize how it handles emergencies. For instance, sometimes a caller needs a ride to urgent care because they cut their thumb and are bleeding, cannot drive or do not own a car.

Dispatching Uber instead of an ambulance

Someday, the center will dispatch an Uber instead of an ambulance to take a patient to urgent care instead of an emergency room. Dameron said that change could save $1 million per month in healthcare costs.

"Most of the calls for ambulances are coming from the lowest-income places. These are the folks who are least likely to be able to afford an ambulance ride."

The center also is exploring using artificial intelligence to analyze conversations for mental health cues.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career at local newspapers. Today, I report on Denver and Aurora city halls for NewsBreak. Prior to joining NewsBreak, I worked several years as a health reporter and branded content writer in the healthcare space. I also worked many years as a news editor and city editor. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver.

Denver, CO

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