Dialing distress: Portland’s 911 ‘a barometer for struggling community’

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Jacqueline Hoyt fell in October and fractured her pelvis. She said she tried to call 911 and the non-emergency line.

She heard this recording: “Please stay on the line and have your address ready for the next available call taker.”

Since she wasn’t bleeding to death, Hoyt told KOIN 6 News she second-guessed the severity of her situation. That recording she heard made her think she was supposed to call the non-emergency line.

“When you’re in shock or you’ve had a traumatic experience, you’re not thinking clearly anyway,” she said.

Jacqueline Hoyt of Portland fell, then was confused trying to reach 911 and waited overnight for help, February 2024 (KOIN)
Jacqueline Hoyt of Portland fell, then was confused trying to reach 911 and waited overnight for help, January 2024 (KOIN)

911 records obtained by KOIN 6 News show Jacqueline Hoyt sat on hold on the non-emergency line a couple of different times for about 10-15 minutes. It wasn’t until the next morning she finally got through to a call taker — who sent an ambulance.

“But all that time I just had to lie still in bed and use a chair to help get to the bathroom,” she said.

She was told she should have stayed on hold with 911 initially. A dispatcher told her, “Anytime you have a problem like this, call us on 911. It’s totally appropriate.”

But Hoyt wondered how to negotiate that system. “How do you know who to call?”

‘911 a barometer of community’

Bob Cozzie, the director of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), said if there is a life-and-death emergency, 911 is completely appropriate.

“I’d really like the details on (Hoyt’s case) because I want to have my staff research that and determine where the system may have gone wrong,” Cozzie said.

Bureau of Emergency Communications Director Bob Cozzie, February 2024 (KOIN)
Bureau of Emergency Communications Director Bob Cozzie, January 2024 (KOIN)

He said whenever anyone has to wait for help, that delays the response. “And we want to be able to answer the phone as immediately as possible so that we can get help dispatched as quickly as possible.”

But in recent years, 911 call takers can’t answer your calls immediately.

“911 is a barometer for the condition of a community,” Cozzie told KOIN 6 News. “And the condition of our community has been really struggling lately.”

An emergency dispatcher in Portland, February 2024 (KOIN)
An emergency dispatcher in Portland, January 2024 (KOIN)

If the community is struggling, he said 911 will hear about it first. He pointed to the pandemic, protests, riots, crime, homelessness, mental illness and addiction as factors straining emergency services.

Medical call logs obtained by KOIN 6 News show, on average, AMR paramedics go to more than 500 overdoses and more than 1,000 behavioral health calls a month. These kinds of calls now make up nearly 20% of a paramedic’s workload, highlighting a need for systemic interventions.

People who are homeless, mentally ill and/or addicted are 12-14 times more likely to go to the emergency room. Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said the county has been “working nonstop” to reduce the homeless and behavioral health crisis.

Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson at her office, January 2024 (KOIN)
Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson at her office, January 2024 (KOIN)

“We have been working nonstop on making sure that we’re improving our system to get those types of investments into place, whether it is working with the city to get people into the Safe Rest site so they’re moving safely off the streets, to opening our own shelters and ramping up there, to making investments in partnership with some of our health care partners and the city and the state of opening new treatment beds, new stabilization centers, all of that,” Vega Pederson said. “All of that is work that we’re doing. And I think that is critical and we need to continue to ramp that up.”

The Multnomah County chair hopes Portland Street Response and the city’s CHAT team (Community Health Assess and Treat) will lighten the load. But while the county struggles to get a grip on this, people are experiencing dangerously long call wait times for 911.

Data from BOEC shows call wait times peaked in 2022, with callers on hold for more than a minute. Only now are wait times finally starting to trend downward.

The new normal

Then there’s staffing. At its worst BOEC was short nearly 40 call takers. The bureau credits the recent dip in call wait times to filling job openings efficiently, introducing the 311 Help Line and implementing new AI call answering for non-emergencies (also called Case Service).

But this progress happened simultaneously with call volumes increasing.

“I think it’d be foolish to think that things are going to slow down for us because it really doesn’t appear that that’s happening,” Cozzie said.

Even though he believes this is the new normal, he still aims to meet the demand.

“My personal goal is that we’re able to answer the phone within 10 seconds,” he said. “I want our community to trust that we’re here to help them.”

Currently, the average wait time is 51 seconds.

BOEC’s ultimate goal is to get to 136 fully trained staffers in all categories. Right now 70 are fully trained with dozens more in the training process. The bureau still needs to fill 15 job openings.

Training takes about 18 months.

The bureau doubled the number of academies they put on a year and they’ve financially incentivized becoming a coach.

“Council has made good policy decisions in the past few years,” Cozzie said, “that have led us to a place now where we’re beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Once they hit 90 fully-trained employees this summer, Cozzie said residents will begin to feel the difference when they call 911. And, he said, it will only improve further as they round out 2024.

“The reality is, though, that with the call volume and the fact that we have a lot of new folks, it’s important to be patient with them as they are learning the job. Recognize that it’s going to take them a little bit longer to be able to process through calls and answer them,” Cozzie said.

The idea, though, is to keep funding for overhiring in the future to help BOEC set up for longer-term success.

‘Health care system imploded’

He wants the community to have faith in calling 911. But that’s hard for people like Jacqueline Hoyt, who feel burned.

“I think the whole health care system has sort of imploded,” Hoyt said.

Without systemic changes to the emergency medical system, she said people will suffer.

“You have to remember that the people who are most vulnerable are the people who are calling 911 … and they’re just as important as everybody else.”

Jacqueline Hoyt of Portland fell, then was confused trying to reach 911 and waited overnight for help, February 2024 (KOIN)
Jacqueline Hoyt of Portland fell, then was confused trying to reach 911 and waited overnight for help, January 2024 (KOIN)

Cozzie said it’s important for the City of Portland and Multnomah County to lean into the community’s needs and provide the service they need.

The focus for the Bureau of Emergency Communications in 2024 is to increase their certified staff, continue to address call wait times, prioritize employee wellness, provide excellent service and aim for agency accreditation by summer.

That’s a tall order. But it would mean BOEC’s triage accuracy is top-notch.

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