The Dane County 911 Center has failed to meet national standards over the last year for answering emergency calls quickly enough, and data from each of the last four quarters shows thousands of calls took longer than 40 seconds to answer, according to a News 3 investigation.
Some 911 callers waited longer than five minutes before hanging up.
The National Emergency Number Association recommends 90 percent of all 911 emergency calls be answered in 10 seconds or less -- a standard Dane County’s 911 center is striving to meet. But, the county has failed in each of the last four calendar quarters to reach the standard.
"When (you) call 911, there are times when the answer time is going to be a lot slower than you think," said John Dejung, the Dane County Public Safety Communications director. "It's an unfortunate reality that call answer times are as slow as they can be. It's a small percentage of the time. I understand if you're the one calling and you've got a very difficult or emergency situation, it's a horrible thing to go through as a caller and it could be very concerning."
Emergency center officials have faced recent criticism from Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and Madison Fire Department leaders because of what they believe is a delay in dispatch times, which is the time it takes to compile information from the caller and dispatch the appropriate crew. A News 3 investigation shows there are significant delays before the call is even answered which would hinder city and county emergency personnel to an even greater extent.
It is concerning to Dr. Abby Taub, a downtown Madison resident who waited 72 seconds before a 911 operator answered the phone earlier this spring to report what she thought was a car break-in. Taub said evidence that the delay in her case was not an outlier worried her as both a medical professional and as a Madison resident.
"If that had been me calling because I'd witnessed a cardiac arrest, that person's chance of survival would have decreased 10 percent before I was even able to tell 911, I needed a paramedic to come with a defibrillator," she said. "For every minute that passes before defibrillation, a person's chance of survival decreases 10 percent."
"There's a lot that can change in 72 seconds. (Not picking up immediately), that's the difference between saying someone's breaking into my apartment to there's someone in my apartment. I'm bleeding and I'm conscious and I'm able to give you the details of my location and what happened to me to I'm now unconscious because I've lost so much blood," Taub said.
In the first three months of 2014, two dates in particular showed problems for the 911 center. An ice storm on Jan. 10 led to 75 callers over an eight-hour period waiting more than 40 seconds to have their calls answered.
"It's a real trick to try to predict when things are going to happen," Dejung said about the weather causing a slew of accidents around the county. "The reality is we just don't have a system that can accommodate a whole onslaught of calls at the same time."
In the early morning of March 30, Dejung and his managers had planned for more phone calls. The Wisconsin Badgers were playing on Saturday night for a chance to go to the Final Four and so, even the usual bulked up staff for weekend bar times was increased. However, sensing the evening would not bring trouble, Dejung said two staffers were sent home at 2:30 a.m. During the 45 minutes that followed, 26 calls took longer than 40 seconds to answer.
Among those, six callers waited more than two minutes, two waited three or more minutes, two heard ringing for more than four minutes, and two callers waited more than 5 1/2 minutes before hanging up.
"Understandably, (the public) is going to be frustrated and maybe even appalled," Dejung said. "I agree that those kinds of wait times are tough to take. It's tough to admit on my part that they happened, but they're the reality."
The 911 center took in 100 calls during the 3 a.m. hour on March 30, nearly two and a half times the usual call volume. Dejung said compounding the problem was that many of the people waiting for a 911 operator hung up. Operators are required to call them back, further tying up resources and reinforcing a "don't hang up" message that Dejung wants the public to know.
On this night, the calls flooding the 911 center were to report a burning couch, a wrong-way driver on Highway 151, a stolen vehicle and a disturbance following a car crash among other incidents, but if a medical emergency came in at the same time, national experts say the consequences could have been disastrous.
"We have been trained to call 911,” said Fred Michanie, who runs California-based ECaTS 911, a technology company that helps manage 911 centers nationwide through data-centric accountability. “You're having a heart attack, you call 911 and you're going to sit there for 40 seconds or three to five minutes. You'll be dead by the time your call gets answered. The word that comes to mind is unacceptable."
Dejung meanwhile described March 30 as a “a bad day.”
"Sort of the planets lining up, the perfect storm kind of compilation of things that added up to lots of folks having to hang on," he said.
However, the data suggests even on days that do not offer up the so-called "Act of God" events or emergencies; the center has trouble answering the phone to national standards. In the last four quarters, 4,136 callers waited at least 40 seconds to have their emergency calls answered or until they hung up.
"It's very rare we see that many calls beyond 40 seconds," Michanie said. "When you ask someone about 911, they'll tell you they're going to get my call as quickly as possible, within 10 or so seconds.
Dejung said more resources would help, but was noncommittal as to where he could or would spend the money.
"We do our best with the statistics we have to bring the staffing to where we think it ought to be," he said. "Designing a staff for a 911 center is a little like designing a freeway. You can't afford to design that freeway for rush hour traffic all the time. We just hope and literally pray that we don't have problems that are really life threatening."