Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on August 15, 2023.

Please Hold

A new Fire Protection Research Foundation study reveals that 911 dispatch centers across the U.S. are struggling to meet national requirements for answering and processing calls. the fixes won’t be easy. what does it mean for public safety? 


a concerned group of residents in Bridgeton, Missouri, a city of 11,000 just outside of St. Louis, gathered at a local rec center to discuss the fate of the city’s faltering 911 dispatch center. Standing at the front of the room, the city’s mayor, Tim Briggs, laid out the situation: The dispatch center needed at least 10 operators and some part-timers to adequately handle the call volume, but the city had only budgeted for eight positions. After nearly a year of looking, he told the crowd, the city had managed to hire only five.

“We couldn’t find the personnel to get it done,” Briggs later told the PBS NewsHour in a segment about 911 staffing issues nationwide. Bridgeton ultimately voted to close its 911 call center and outsource its operations to the county.

Across the United States, communities are experiencing similar struggles with their local 911 call centers, also known as public safety answering points, or PSAPs. In St. Louis, Mayor Tishaura Jones said that her city’s 911 system was “in dire need of an overhaul” after reports surfaced that 911 callers were sometimes on hold for several minutes waiting for an operator. A local TV station in Portland, Oregon, found that 911 response times in the city were twice as long in 2023 as they were in 2016. In Philadelphia, response times rose by an average of 22 minutes compared to the year before, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Some of the worst problems appear to be in Austin, Texas, where some 911 callers have experienced holds of up to 30 minutes during peak periods such as New Year’s Eve, the Austin Chronicle reported.

In each case, the equation for failure is the same: significant funding and staffing shortages at 911 call centers, combined with a rising call volume, equal longer waits for callers desperate for lifesaving aid.

“My goal is anyone who calls 911 should have a response within 10 seconds, but you have to have people to make that happen,” Ken Murphy, the head of Austin’s emergency communications division, told a local television station in response to the delays. As of February, Austin dispatch was down 46 out of a total of 180 operators, with many leaving for better-paying jobs, Murphy said.

Taken together, the anecdotes paint a dire picture. But accurately assessing the overall health and performance of the nation’s PSAPs remains difficult. There are no standards for collecting and managing 911 call data, and what data does exist is notoriously difficult to obtain and piece together, experts say. But that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying.

This spring, the Fire Protection Research Foundation published the results of a study, “An Analysis of Public Safety Call Answering and Event Processing Times,” which surveyed dozens of PSAPs in an effort to gain a clearer picture of the performance and operational challenges they face. Among other things, the results depict a 911 system struggling under the weight of multiple challenges—much of it happening with little public awareness, said Jason Fuller, a former fire battalion chief and the lead author of the report. “I worked for years in field ops and dealt with a lot of issues surrounding dispatch,” said Fuller, who now works for Public Consulting Group, the firm that conducted the survey. “But I still had no idea about the complexities of dispatch and the challenges that were present until we dove into this study.”

Lack of standardization

The survey’s findings, along with interviews of call center managers, also reveal important insights about why some PSAPs perform better than others, and the role that standards have (or don’t have) in guiding their operations—clues that could help determine a strategy for fixing some of the issues plaguing the nation’s 911 system.

Part of the challenge involves the sheer number of calls received by that system. There are an estimated 240 million calls to 911 each year in the United States, which translates to nearly eight calls every second. Each call is answered by a 911 operator working at one of about 6,000 PSAPs scattered across the country. 

Though all serve roughly the same purpose—to answer emergency calls and dispatch the appropriate response units to the location—PSAPs differ dramatically in size and scale, from a single facility with dozens of operators serving multiple jurisdictions to “one person sitting at a fire department desk who singlehandedly serves as the PSAP for an area in rural Wisconsin,” Fuller said. Depending on the jurisdiction, a PSAP may be operated by law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services, or even contracted private companies, and overseen by city, county, or state government.

The primary metric used in the Foundation study to assess a PSAP’s performance was how often it complied with requirements in NFPA 1225, Standard for Emergency Services Communications, for how quickly 911 calls are answered and processed. The standard requires 911 operators to answer calls within 15 seconds 90 percent of the time and states that urgent calls must be processed—as measured from the time the call is answered to when emergency resources are alerted—within 60 seconds or less 90 percent of the time. Standards developed by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) contain similar requirements.

Of the roughly 1.3 million calls from the 47 PSAPs that were analyzed in the Foundation’s study, fewer than half achieved the time requirements in NFPA and NENA, the study concluded.

The biggest factor that determined call answering and processing times was whether the PSAP followed a standard like NFPA 1225, the researchers found. The average call processing time for PSAPs that did not follow a standard was nearly 7 minutes, compared to 1 minute and 18 seconds for PSAPs that did follow NFPA 1225, the report found. Only 27 percent of 911 calls were processed in under 60 seconds in PSAPs that didn’t follow a standard, versus 65 percent of calls for those that did follow NFPA 1225.

“That difference is huge and shows that, if nothing else, these dispatch centers need to be setting goals,” Fuller said. “They need to have some time benchmarks to follow.” More than half of the records that Fuller and his researchers viewed were from PSAPs that did not follow “any current standard,” he said.

Chuck Berdan, who retired in 2000 as director of one of the busiest PSAPs in California and now works as an industry consultant, said that the lack of adherence to standards in the industry doesn’t surprise him. “I’ve worked all over country the last 10 years as a consultant, and the number of agencies that track compliance in call answering I could probably count on one hand,” said Berdan, who chairs the committee for NFPA 1221, Standard for the Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems.

Almost every PSAP uses what’s known as computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, systems to prioritize and record calls and dispatch responding agencies. Some PSAPS would like to keep better call processing data but lack the technical expertise with their CAD systems, Berdan said. Other call centers dismiss the idea of following standards altogether or don’t even consider it unless something happens to draw the ire of the public, like an unflattering local news report.

“That’s when politicians start asking questions about what standards they follow. And if the answer is none, the government might say, ‘you will follow the standard’—but often no one follows up on it,” Berdan said.

The PSAP representatives that Fuller spoke to as part of the study were critical of NFPA 1225’s emphasis on time benchmarks, which they deemed less important than ensuring that 911 operators take the time to get the right information. “[PSAPs] thought that these time frames aren’t practical and that they don’t matter as much as accuracy does,” Fuller said. “What they really harped on was that the time frames needed to be extended if agencies were going to follow them.” A common refrain heard by the researchers from PSAP representatives was, “We can do it accurately or we can do it efficiently, but not both,” he said.

The NFPA 1225 technical committee has formed a task group to look at the survey’s results and will consider whether the time requirements should be adjusted, said Jay Dornseif, who works at a leading dispatch software company and chairs the NFPA 1225 committee. “There are quality assurance requirements in the standard, but it’s true that some of the biggest things in the document are around how fast calls are answered, transferred, and processed,” he said. “We will definitely be looking at what that correct balance is between time and quality and if things should be adjusted.”

While the 10-second requirement to answer a call is widely accepted, the requirement to process the call in a minute or less has been “debated for years,” said Berdan, who has been on the NFPA 1221 committee for nearly three decades. (As part of NFPA’s ongoing consolidation of responder documents, NFPA 1221 and NFPA 1061, Standard for Public Safety Telecommunications Personnel Professional Qualifications, were combined last year to form NFPA 1225.) The time requirements are there for an important reason, he said. “The faster help is given to a person over the phone, the more likely they have a positive outcome. If it takes three minutes to figure out how to dispatch the call, that’s two minutes longer that counts against their survivability time,” Berdan said. “I would argue against the contention that operators will do a shoddy job because they’re in a hurry. We’re looking for three basic pieces information: location, phone number, and what’s wrong. After that, you can dispatch. The committee has generally felt that this can be done in 60 seconds or less.”

Funding, staffing, and tech

The lack of standardization was far from the only issue facing call centers: funding, staffing, and technology challenges also played significant roles in slowing down PSAP operations and performance, Fuller said. In some PSAPs, the CAD is outdated and unable to handle the increased call volumes that have occurred in the years since it was installed. In other instances, CADs in different PSAPs may not be compatible with each other, which makes it tricky when a primary PSAP needs to transfer certain emergency calls to more specialized secondary PSAPs. “In that case, instead of automatically transferring the call through the computers, somebody usually has to pick up the telephone and manually call the secondary PSAP and relay the information,” said Ken Riddle, a co-author on the Foundation study and a 28-year veteran of Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. “That kind of issue is not uncommon.”

Other technical snafus can also surface. For instance, from June 2016 through July 2017, the city of Cincinnati experienced nine reported blackouts of its entire 911 system due to memory problems with the network, router failures, switch failures, and forced software updates. The longest blackout, on July 17, left city residents without a functioning 911 for more than three hours.

Updating this technology often falls to local governments, whose budgets have many competing priorities and limited funds. Historically, some 911 agencies have been buoyed by funding from fees collected from landline phone use, a revenue source that has dipped dramatically in recent years due to the rise of cell phones, according to the National 911 Program, a federal organization that supports 911 services across the country.

Funding is also a factor in the staffing shortage issue, though not the only one. Economic factors including inflation and fewer people in the workforce have squeezed employers in all sectors since the COVID pandemic. For already-struggling PSAPs, the problems stemming from the pandemic made an already tough situation worse.

“The staffing shortage is a crisis industrywide and it’s been coming for a while,” Berdan said. “Being a 911 operator has never been a high-paying job. The working conditions are crummy. The hours are crummy. It takes a pretty dedicated person to work through that, so a lot of people end up quitting. But COVID really took it over the edge. A lot of operators started quitting because dispatch is a small, enclosed environment and people were afraid of getting sick.”

The Foundation survey, which was conducted in 2019, found that nearly all PSAPs reported staffing and funding constraints, with about 90 percent of responding agencies citing staffing as a challenge that had a direct impact on their ability to meet the call answering and processing standards. Since then, the situation has likely only gotten worse, experts say. According to a national survey conducted by the National 911 Program, there were nearly 2,000 fewer 911 call operators working in the U.S. in 2021 than in 2020.

Attracting new people is difficult: the job is stressful and typically doesn’t pay well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in 2021 for public safety telecommunicators, which includes jobs like dispatchers, was $46,670 per year. On top of that, it’s a job that requires skills and comes with a steep learning curve. “It’s not like you can go to a two-week training program and now you’re a 911 operator,” Riddle said. “The training can be six months or longer, and after you get that initial training you’re sitting with somebody who watches over you for a while to make sure you’re doing things right. If a PSAP hires 50 people today, it’s not like they’re going to work next week.”

The bottom line: “PSAPs can’t hire people faster than they’re quitting,” Berdan said.

Looking ahead

Fixing these problems involves overcoming a difficult catch-22. Updating the technology, increasing pay to attract more workers, and training thousands of new 911 operators across the country will require a lot of money, and persuading governments to sacrifice in other areas to invest in PSAPs will likely require convincing data that shows that response times are slipping to a point where citizens are negatively affected. According to the Foundations survey, though, many PSAPs don’t have quality data, either because their technology is antiquated or because the PSAPs are too understaffed to adequately collect and analyze any data (see “Data Deficit” sidebar).

If anything, however, the lack of data likely means that the time frames for call answering and processing at PSAPs nationwide are worse than the Foundation study suggests because of selection bias, Fuller believes. It’s reasonable to assume, he said, that PSAPs with more resources, more staffing, and better data were more likely to have the time and incentive to respond to the Foundation survey than PSAPs with unflattering data, skewing the numbers. “And for agencies in the study that did respond, we’re already, at best, 200 percent above what the recommended standard is for call processing times,” Fuller said. “It means that something has clearly got to change. But without an obvious body of research that says, ‘With these times decreasing, it’ll save this much in property and this much in lives,’ it can be really hard to justify the additional funding needed to be able to drop these times.”

Even so, there are several federal, state, and local efforts underway designed to reverse the trend of rising response times. Among the most notable is an attempt to modernize the nation’s 911 infrastructure to what’s called “Next Generation 911,” or NG911. The idea is to replace the old analog systems—which have been in place since the 1970s in much of the country—with a faster, more resilient digital system that “allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public,” according to the National 911 Program. In addition to being faster and more versatile, the new infrastructure is expected to help PSAPs manage call overload and will be better at identifying caller location.

A 2018 federal report commissioned by Congress found that implementing NG911 nationwide could cost up to $12.7 billion and take at least a decade to complete. Progress so far has been patchy at best. In its 2021 “911 Annual Report,” the National 911 Program found that 12 states reported that 100 percent of their population is now covered by PSAPs that have NG911 capability. Conversely, 11 states report that none of their population is covered by NG911-capable PSAPs.

Another way that governments are working to address the problem is by reshuffling resources to try and gain more efficiencies and economies of scale. In some cases, as in Bridgeton, Missouri, smaller communities are closing local PSAPs and paying larger communities or counties to take over their dispatch. In other cases, states and counties are incentivizing, or even mandating, that smaller PSAPs consolidate to form a single larger one. But there are obstacles to that strategy as well.

In Arkansas, the state legislature passed a bill in 2019 mandating that certain city and county PSAPs merge, and tied funding to their compliance. The goal was to save money and increase efficiencies by reducing the state’s 114 PSAPs to no more than 77. As recently as last year, however, there were still 100 PSAPs in the state due to unforeseen delays and the challenges inherent in the consolidation process. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, for instance, city and county officials have resisted consolidating their two separate PSAPs into a single PSAP, arguing that their combined call volumes warrant two facilities. There have also been incompatibility issues between the city and county’s computer-aided dispatch, Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough told the city directors last October. “A truly monumental effort would have to take place, and somebody’s going to lose their call history,” Burrough said. “There’s no bridge between the two.”

For a brief period, it appeared that privatization might be one solution to PSAP woes, but there doesn’t appear to be much movement in that direction, Fuller said. Of the 1.2 million records he analyzed in the Foundation study, just 10 percent were from PSAPs owned by private or independent agencies, and “their ability to answer the calls in the appropriate time frames were the worst out of all of the agencies,” he said. “I don’t see any trend toward privatization, mostly because I think they’re looking at the situation and saying, ‘We can’t make money on this.’”

Meanwhile, the NFPA 1225 committee will be looking at the findings from the Foundation study to see what revisions it might make to the standard around call answering and processing times. With so few PSAPs seemingly able to meet the requirements—and no scientific evidence that the specific metrics outlined in the standard are vital for adequate performance—there may be arguments made to ease the time frame to allow more PSAPs the chance to comply.

“The technical committee will go back and review this and decide what should be changed. I don’t think you ever want a goal that’s unachievable because people won’t try to follow the standard and these agencies won’t strive for it,” Fuller said. By spending to achieve unreasonable time benchmarks, he said, “you’re costing your community additional money that otherwise could be spent on more ambulances and more fire trucks. But if the standard is reasonable, then we need to help provide those agencies with a way to accomplish that task.”

There is one takeaway that the Foundation study does make abundantly clear: “The thing we know for sure is there should be future research into this,” Fuller said. “And we need to communicate this to the public because most people just don’t understand how this works. If people don’t know there’s a problem, there won’t be the will to try to find a solution for it.” 

Jesse Roman is senior editor of NFPA Journal and producer of the NFPA Podcast. Top illustration: Lincoln Agnew