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A shortage of 911 dispatchers in Kansas City means calls aren't getting picked up fast enough

The Board of Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners met on several issues on December 13, 2022.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
The Board of Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners met on several issues on December 13, 2022.

Callers complain that they are being placed on hold or get a busy signal, which Mayor Quinton Lucas says “gives our community grave concern.”

The Kansas City Police Department is grappling with a critical shortage of 911 dispatchers, forcing some emergency calls to be placed on hold or to be routed to an automated message.

The Board of Police Commissioners, the state panel that oversees the department, is considering offering $5,000 hiring bonuses, poaching from nearby departments and changing hiring requirements to fill critical gaps.

Mark Tolbert, board chair, said commissioners have been working on the shortage for the last two years and the problem still isn’t fixed. The department has been down 20 people during that time, he said.

“We have not stayed consistent on fixing that problem,” Tolbert said. “Again, this raises a red flag for me.”

Kansas City isn’t the only place facing such staffing shortages. Although no national database tracks the numbers, there is a 30 percent shortage, on average, across the U.S., said April Heinze of the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA. She cited low pay and decreasing benefits, high stress and burnout, accelerated retirements during the pandemic, and lengthy hiring and training processes as factors.

National standards call for 90 percent of 911 calls to be answered within 15 seconds and 95 percent to be answered within 20 seconds, according to NENA.

At the Kansas City board’s last meeting on December 13, Commissioner Cathy Dean said she and other board members received a letter from someone reporting that a woman who had been out running was pursued by an attacker. She called 911 and got a busy signal, Dean said.

“It’s disturbing,” Dean said. “People plan when they call 911, somebody’s going to answer.”

Deputy Chief Doug Niemeiersaid the line never offers a “true busy signal,” but if the call isn’t immediately picked up, the caller receives a recording saying, “Stay on the line, don’t hang up.”

“I say this all the time: if my daughter calls 911, I want the phone answered,” Niemeier said. “I’m with you.”

Mayor Quinton Lucas, a police board member, said he and other city officials receive many complaints about delays with the emergency call system.

“A lot of things we’re not perfect on, no doubt,” he said. “But people waiting on hold on 911 gives our community grave concern.”

The department has offered raises and promotion incentives in the past year to attract and retain dispatchers, Niemeyer said.

Lucas suggested recruiting dispatchers in other communities in the metro area. “Poach them,” he said.

Another hurdle is the strict standards many applicants can’t pass. Niemeyer said during a recent spate of hiring, just seven out of 25 applicants passed department tests and human resource background screenings. One of the tests is typing, which a dispatcher must do with accuracy and speed, he said.

Dean said the legalization of recreational marijuana in Missouri could mean fewer people are ruled out. She also suggested hiring people without typing skills and training them — and she wants the department to add child care services for employees. The department is studying that and potentially looking at outside contractors, said Chief Stacey Graves.

Board member Don Wagner said he wants an in-depth review of the program at next month’s meeting.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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