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Life and Death: KCPD Struggles to Answer 911 Calls Nearly One in Four Call-Taker Jobs Are Unfilled in KC

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Above image credit: A police line do not cross tape. (File photo)
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6 minute read

A year ago, the Kansas City Police Department had three vacancies in the crucial role of answering the public’s 911 calls and dispatching police.

Now, there are 22 unfilled jobs out of 96 positions at full staff. As a result, call-takers are working extended shifts of mandatory overtime.

The potential human toll of being placed on hold when calling for police in an emergency was painfully recounted by none other than the president of the Board of Police Commissioners during a meeting last week.

Mark C. Tolbert, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
Mark C. Tolbert, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. (Courtesy | Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners)

“My youngest brother, we just lost him,” said Mark C. Tolbert. “He had an asthma attack. He was in our building by himself.”

The building was the Victorious Life Church. Tolbert’s brother was a deacon.

“He called 911 twice and by the time they got to him, he had deceased,” Tolbert said.

Aaron Wayne Tolbert Sr. was 58. He’d been married 32 years and was a father to four sons and six daughters.

Mark Tolbert said that he requested a transcript of his brother’s late February conversation with call-takers. None exists. 

That’s because his brother was placed on hold, twice. Once free from the volume of other requests for help, call-takers tried repeatedly to call him back, but there was no answer. They resorted to pinging his phone to find out where the call originated.

Emergency crews were sent to the church and had to break in to reach the younger Tolbert.

“I have a personal vested interest in making sure nobody else feels the pain that I felt because we don’t have an adequate 911 call-taker process,” Mark Tolbert said. “It’s a dire need.”

Kansas City’s 911 hiring dilemma is not a new problem. But it’s worsened recently.

The consequences of operating with a short staff comes through in the data. While an industry standard is to answer 90% of incoming calls within 15 seconds, Kansas City is struggling to answer 75% of calls within that time frame, according to data compiled by the Mid-America Regional Council.

The challenge of filling those open call-taker positions also comes amid an incredibly tight local labor market. In April, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the unemployment rate in the Kansas City area was a minuscule 2.4%.

Recruiters also readily acknowledge that the job is stressful, not only from working with distressed people seeking immediate help, but also the accelerating pace of incoming calls. 

Mandatory overtime is required, as the positions are crucial to the health and safety of the public. But that means that a person can show up for a shift and not know for sure when they’ll be finished.

Police Commissioner Cathy Dean has long followed the issues of the call-takers and dispatchers, who relay information to police officers and other emergency responders.

A city audit two years ago suggested changing to 10-hour shifts, a change the department made, Dean said. 

Cathy Dean, vice president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
Cathy Dean, vice president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. (Courtesy | Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners)

But the inherent necessity of having enough people to field three shifts – day, evening and overnight – continues to make hiring difficult. Recruiting is especially difficult when would-be employees have family responsibilities, like being available to pick up children from school.

“The mandatory overtime is the killer,” Dean said. “They have no way to predict when they come to work, when they are going to get home.”

Interim Chief Joseph Mabin said that contract workers will be used to help fill the vacancies. It’s a solution that the department has used in previous years.

It’s a “vicious cycle,” said Deputy Chief Doug Niemeier.

More pressure is placed on remaining workers when highly trained employees leave, adding to the possibility of burnout among those who remain.

The 911 calls and other pleas for help are termed “calls for service.” In March, KCPD answered 25,784 calls for service. Those numbers tend to tick upward in the summer months. 

“We are hiring all of the time for call-takers and dispatchers,” Niemeier said.

Click here to apply.

Answering 911: Heroic Work

Board President Tolbert recently reached out to the Full Employment Council (FEC) for help.

“Just to go through the testing process to become a call-taker … It’s quite an ordeal,” Tolbert said.

Clyde McQueen, president and chief executive officer of the FEC, said a number of solutions are being developed.

First, there is a lack of awareness to what the job entails and how important the work is to public safety.

“There isn’t much understanding that it’s more than just an operator,” McQueen said. “This is a crucial job. They are a life facilitator.”

A new system, where a potential job applicant could dial a number to learn specifics about the position is being developed.

In May, the call-takers and dispatchers got a pay raise. Call-takers begin at $20.48 an hour and dispatchers at $22.48 an hour. But call-taker is the prerequisite position, as that role is foundational to everything that the communications unit manages.

There are three basic shifts: day, evening and overnight. But each shift has staggered times. For instance, the overnight “A” shift is 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. The overnight “B” shift is 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The Full Employment Council is identifying childcare providers that will be located near the call-taker and dispatch office, which is adjacent to the main police headquarters downtown. The arrangement will give employees an easier way to report for work and have their childcare needs met.

“This childcare challenge we also found when doing the airport recruitment,” he said. “With late and early shifts, that is a huge issue.”

The call-taker position requires weeks of extensive paid training to ensure that a person has the skills to assess situations and quickly determine what type of help is needed. There is also a need for people to understand trauma. 

“We encounter more mental health calls than ever before.” 

— Tamara Bazzle, 911 training supervisor

“We encounter more mental health calls than ever before,” said Tamara Bazzle, training supervisor and a 20-year employee. 

People call as they are contemplating suicide. Others, when they are high on drugs and are having a reaction to the drugs.

“They might be off their medications, or they just know they are in a mental health breakdown and they are calling for assistance because they know that they need to go to a hospital,” she said.

Wait times sometimes increase when a large car accident occurs, with multiple people calling 911. Each caller must be interviewed. A caller might be offering new information that will be useful for investigators later, or for responding officers in real time.

There also are accidental 911 purse dials or calls from children who are playing with a cell phone that no longer has service connected. Parents often don’t realize that those phones can still dial 911.

Bazzle added it’s not unusual for someone to call simply because they are lonely and in need of a connection to a human voice. 

Care is taken there too, she said, because call-takers need to determine whether something is not being said or if the call is, in fact, a call to 911 for help.

“If they just don’t know something, then the easy response is to just contact the police department,” Bazzle said.

One of the department’s supervisors is leaving June 11, so that will raise the open slots to 23.

“But the number of applications are down,” Bazzle said. “There has been a significant decline in people applying for this type of work.”

Preventable Deaths: The First 911 Call 

The nation’s first 911 call was made in Haleyville, Alabama, in February 1968.

Six days later, a second call to the system was made in Nome, Alaska.

Before that, people dialed 10-digit numbers to reach local law enforcement or other help.

Revisiting sentiments from this period more than 50 years ago can feel like a journey into a time capsule.

At the time, the high numbers of deaths due to traumatic accidents alarmed researchers. More people were dying from accidents than people who succumbed later in life from chronic illnesses like heart disease and strokes. 

It’s all chronicled in a 1966 report titled, “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society,” by the National Academy of Sciences.

“The human suffering and financial loss from preventable accidental death constitute a public health problem second only to the ravages of ancient plagues or world wars. In one year alone vehicle accidents kill more than we lost in the Korean War, and in the past 60 years more Americans have died from accidents than from combat wounds in all of our wars,” reads a passage from the study.

Even higher numbers were permanently disabled by accidents.

The costs in 1965 were placed at $18 billion – about $165 billion in current dollars – a calculation that took into account legal settlements, medical costs and lost wages.

“The long-term solution to the injury problem is prevention,” the authors wrote.

A Brief History of 911

But this led to another revelation.

“With few exceptions, the role of the physician in the care of victims of accidental injury begins at the emergency department of the hospital. Only rarely is he available at the scene of injury.”

There were calls for widespread first aid training for the public, beginning after the fifth grade.

But the military also offered a solution, how mobile units treated soldiers on the battlefield. Consultants wagered that a person seriously wounded would have a better chance of survival in a combat zone than on an American city street.

At the time, no manufacturer was producing ambulances on an assembly line. Rather, passenger cars were retrofitted with medical equipment, the report said.

“Adequate ambulance services are as much a municipal responsibility as firefighting and police services,” the report said.

Communication in general between emergency services was also discussed at length, particularly between what ambulance services existed and hospitals.

But the genesis of what would become the robust 911 system of today is contained in one sentence, the last suggestion in a section on communications: “Active exploration of the feasibility of designing a single nationwide telephone number to summon an ambulance.” 

The 1966 study’s authors probably couldn’t have imagined our world today – firearm injuries aren’t even mentioned in the original report – much less how widespread the use of 911 would become.

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Flatland’s Cami Koons created the graphic for this story.

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