Problems within Milwaukee's 911 system leaving some callers on hold

Posted at 10:18 PM, Aug 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-04 11:06:55-04

Problems within the city of Milwaukee's 911 system are leaving some callers on hold.

“I keep explaining that I have a whole house full of children and there's somebody that's trying to break down the door,” Ester Riva Milchtein said.

Milchtein calls 911 and says her call is first transferred, and then disconnected.

In her 911 call, Ester says, “He's pounding like he's going to break down the door.”

According to Milwaukee Police records, it was at least 15 minutes before officers responded to Milchtein's call about a man trying to get inside her home.  By that time, the man had moved on and smashed through her neighbor's front door.

In another 911 call, the caller says he hears this message before someone picks up:

“Do not hang up, your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

He is eventually transferred to Milwaukee County.  In the recording Today’s TMJ4 got from the caller he tells the dispatcher from Milwaukee County, “To be on hold for 3 minutes with 911 and there's a difference between life and death that's freaking ridiculous.”

The dispatcher replies, “Yeah, that’s Milwaukee Police. We get that all the time.”

The reality is those problems are happening and Milwaukee Police Inspector Terrence Gordon says they'll continue.  Milwaukee dispatch has 31 openings right now, and that's on top of the higher call volumes Gordon says come with every summer.

“It's the reality in an urban environment, if you ask, is that going to happen? Yes, it is and it's not okay,” Gordon said.

There are no statewide standards for 911 dispatch centers in Wisconsin, no requirements for training or the number of dispatchers.  Instead each call center sets its own guidelines.

“The training we do here at the 911 center is significant because the job obviously is very important,” Waukesha County 911 Supervisor Christine Bannister said.

In Waukesha County the training lasts for between 6 and 8 months.  It's much less than that for Milwaukee Police dispatchers, 2 months plus some on the job training.

“We do get complaints. I would be dishonest if I said people don’t call the district and complain,” Gordon said.

Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana all have some sort of 911 standards, something every single call center in Southeastern Wisconsin we spoke with said we could benefit from.

“I actually think it would be very useful for states to work with agencies to develop standards for best practices,” Gordon said.

In the meantime, Milchstein said worries real emergencies will never get reported.

“There's no way we could really protect our family,” Milchstein said.

The city just increased wages and incentives for 911 operators and Inspector Gordon says that should make it easier to fill all those open positions. They're also planning to hold recruiting sessions, but even after those positions are filled, it'll be months before the dispatchers are ready to answer calls on their own.

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