NEW ORLEANS --
It's the number everyone dials in case of an emergency. But new internal documents obtained by the WDSU I-Team show that thousands of 911 calls are not being answered each month in New Orleans.
All day and throughout the night, the workers inside a building on City Park Avenue are busy.
They're 911 call takers, the men and women responsible for dispatching police officers, firefighters and medical responders to emergencies in New Orleans. On average, these people answer more than 34,000 calls for service each month.
Stephen Gordon runs the entire operation.
"The OPCD (Orleans Parish Communications District) is doing everything it can," said Gordon.
They're even set to move into a brand new, start-of-the-art facility before year's end.
But an internal report, written just over a month ago and obtained by the I-Team, shows that all of the effort put forth by the call takers may not be paying off, as thousands of calls go unanswered each month.
The report shows that last October, more than 38,000 people dialed 911 in New Orleans, but more than 5,000 of those calls were not answered.
In December of last year, the report indicates more than 38,000 people called 911 for help. Almost 7,000 of those calls were not answered. That means almost 20 percent of all people who called 911 didn't get an answer.
And one month later -- in Janaury of this year -- more than 35,000 911 calls came in, and almost 5,500 went unanswered. That's more than 15 percent of all calls.
The reason for the disconnect is staffing. Despite the fact that some calls are sent to the New Orleans Fire Department and EMS, all original 911 calls that come into the call center building are answered by the New Orleans Police Department.
"Police answer all 911 calls because the majority of all 911 calls are police-related," said Gordon.
And last summer, due to a city budget crisis, the police department had to deal with major constraints. All officers were forced to take 11 unpaid days off, and -- the report says -- 25 of the NOPD's 65 call takers who work at the communications center were laid off.
And the executive summary of the report says, "Since that time, call volume has increased. In addition, the remaining NOPD call takers and dispatchers were subject to mandatory furlough days, and additional employees left NOPD."
The chart shows that in April 2010, Warren Riley's last month as NOPD superintendent, there were 65 911 call takers and 99 percent of all calls were answered within 20 seconds.
In December of last year, only 34 call takers were working, and only 89 percent of all calls were answered within 20 seconds.
The reports says five callers had to wait eight minutes before anyone answered.
Gordon said he has no control over staffing.
"The OPCD provides all of the physical things, so we manage all the physical things but not the personnel inside the building," said Gordon.
Gordon, a former NOPD captain, said the number of call takers is strictly an NOPD issue.
"I guess you could always have more, but the agenices, they need to balance how much they budget with the call takers, and that is an internal police decision," said Gordon.
And when it comes to the decision to make layoffs, the Orleans Parish Communications District tried plug the leak.
Last summer, after Mitch Landrieu was sworn in as mayor and Ronal Serpas was hired as police superintendent, the communications district -- which is run by a board made up of various emergency leaders -- donated $150,000 to the city in an effort to try and prevent layoffs at the call center.
"(With) a new mayor coming in and no control over his budget as well as a new police chief, we were trying to just get them over the hump of the budget that was set by the previous regime. It was an attempt to try and help them," said Gordon.
But it didn't work, as the layoffs happened anyway.
And based on this report, that could be bad. The last paragraph of the executive summary reads, "The staff shortage of NOPD call takers poses an enormous concern for the public safety response time to our citizens. The city must work together with the Orleans Parish Communications District to develop a joint solutions to the extended wait times, along with the ability to respond to 911 calls, especially with the major events coming over the next 90 days. A major incident could overload the thinly staffed 911 system, and could hamper the city's ability to respond to that and any other emergency."
Gorden said, "911 is essential. It's life and death calls that come across that."
Gordon said all abandoned or unanswered calls are returned at some point when operators have time to call back.
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