LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The place people call in a crisis has found itself in its own dilemma.
Little Rock 911 Director Juana Green said her department, which was removed from under the police department’s command in 2021, is facing an uphill battle to recruit and retain.
“Staffing is an issue,” Green said.
Of 56 dispatchers, call takers and supervisors, there are 27 vacancies. Employee timesheets obtained by Working 4 You through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act revealed the center only had one person assigned to answer 911 calls for the entire city during some shifts.
“It is not acceptable,” Green said. “The more staffing we have, the more we’re able to provide quality services to our residents and visitors of the city.”
Green said she implemented 12-hour shifts to ease the burden.
Lower staff levels leading to longer wait times for callers
Along with staff shortages, the dispatch center is seeing slower response times. Only 80% of emergency calls are being answered within 20 seconds, below the 90% national standard.
Between July and October, the city reported that, on average, it took about 11 minutes and 30 seconds for a 911 call to be dispatched to officers and then another 10 minutes for the officers to arrive.
Union concerned about police safety
Right now, Little Rock police officers use several radio channels to communicate with dispatchers but when there isn’t enough staff, one police radio channel goes silent.
Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police President Zach Farley believes the staffing shortage could create a potential safety issue for officers.
“If we don’t have any information, it may take too long to get the proper information to take the proper action,” Farley said. “They’re [officers] at risk even more and it puts the public at even more risk.”
Green doesn’t see it that way, though.
“If anything, it’s safer for them to stay on the channel they’re on without having to switch to another channel and forgetting to switch back,” Green said.
Farley has concerns about the amount of time between someone calling 911 to when officers leave for the call they were assigned.
“Could you create a link to a really high increase of danger to the public on a day-to-day basis? Probably not. It’s going to equate to just poor service or a delay in service,” Farley said.
What’s being done to fix the issue?
The 911 director said the city is considering a salary increase for dispatchers. A spokesman for Mayor Frank Scott Jr. also confirmed Wednesday that the mayor plans to propose the raise, but an exact timeframe of when that could happen is unclear.
The Little Rock Board of Directors is expected to meet regarding the entire city’s budget after Thanksgiving.
The Little Rock 911 Center has said that of the 204,000 calls received this year, about 35,000 had to be returned because someone hung up. Green said it’s important for people to remember that when they call 911, they’re placed into a queue, and they should not hang up and redial.
“If I have 12 phones and I have 12 folks sitting in those seats, caller 13 is going to be unanswered until one of them releases their call,” she said.
In the meantime, it’s all hands on deck inside the walls of emergency communication.
“We’re here to do the job well with the people we have,” Green said.