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911 callers in Kansas City still struggle to get through, and the fix is a long way away

Inside the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) 911 dispatch center.
Sam Zeff
Inside the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) 911 dispatch center.

An automatic callback update goes live Sunday, but the much-touted auto attendant feature is still months and perhaps millions of dollars away.

Last summer, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas took to social media to tout a solution to help the city’s dangerously slow 911 system.

“In the weeks ahead, we expect to announce that you will never wait on hold to be directed to an emergency agency in our city again,” he tweeted in July.

At the time, the average hold time for a 911 caller in Kansas City was 40 seconds. In Kansas City, Kansas, the hold time was eight seconds.

The solution, Lucas said, was an auto-attendant where callers would press one for police, two for fire, three for emergency medical services. The Mid-America Regional Council — which administers the metro’s 911 systems — signed a contract with Motorola and announced that the new feature would roll out by the end of April.

Not so.

“We couldn’t run auto-attendant if they turned it on in six months,” said Battalion Chief Michael Hopkins, spokesperson for the Kansas City Fire Department.

KCFD says the auto-attendant would send more calls to dispatchers.

Kansas City has taken some action to address long wait times. On Sunday, it rolled out an automatic 911 callback feature that returns calls to people who hung up before the call taker could answer.

Last year, call takers had to return more than 115,000 hang-ups. The new feature will automatically call back and confirm whether the person needs help or whether the call was an accident.

That could help cut the long wait times, but not much. In March, the hold time for an emergency call was 33 seconds — not quite as bad as it used to be, but still much longer than in neighboring municipalities.

The auto-attendant rollout has been delayed by concerns from KCFD. Currently, all 911 calls come into the police department and the call takers decide whether it is a police, fire, or EMS matter. The auto-attendant would send more calls directly to KCFD.

In a memo, KCFD said it would need more call takers and a larger dispatch center to handle an additional 31,000 calls a year. That would cost $12 million over the next ten years, the department estimated.

“I have never rejected a funding request for the Kansas City Fire Department. City councils, mayors of years past largely have not either. There will be funding support to ensure that we can have adequate staff,” Lucas said.

The fire department has said it would rather KCPD hire more call takers to alleviate the need for an auto-attendant. But the police department has for years struggled to hire call-takers and dispatchers. Currently, there are 27 unfilled positions, according to KCPD.

The auto-attendant question will next go before the Board of Police Commissioners and city council.

“What we cannot do is very simply say that we don't want to hire more people. What we cannot do is simply say that this status quo is acceptable,” Lucas told KCUR.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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