PDX 911 center accused of lying about call wait times

Ombudsman report claims bureau leaders knew numbers given to city were wrong

Jacquie Carson, emergency communication supervisor for the city of Portland, answers emergency calls at the 9-1-1 dispatch center. Undated photo. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Bureau of Emergency Communications has been lying to the Portland City Council about how long it takes 911 operators to answer emergency calls, a new Ombudsman report claims.

Although BOEC has dealt with staffing shortages and technological flaws for years, numbers given to the city indicate they are exceeding call response standards.

“I honestly don’t have a viable answer for you as to why those weren’t used.” — BOEC spokesperson Laureen Paulsen

Call response time is counted from “the moment a call is received by the 911 center to the point in time when an individual operator gets on the line,” the Ombudsman report said.

“Frankly, it makes me angry because people’s lives are at stake,” said Portland ombudsman Margie Sollinger. “When people call 911 they expect to reach somebody and they expect help to come quickly.”

Curt Erickson, a senior dispatcher for the city of Portland, answers emergency calls at the 9-1-1 center. Undated photo. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)
Curt Erickson, a senior dispatcher for the city of Portland, answers emergency calls at the 9-1-1 center. Undated photo. (Jaime Valdez/Portland Tribune)

Since 2004, the bureau has been using a system called the Reno Solution to filter out accidental 911 calls made from cellphones. Callers who make it through the screening process are put through to a 911 operator or placed on hold until one becomes available.

But the system caused a flaw in BOEC’s ability to answer 911 calls. In December 2016, Ombudsman reported that the Reno Solution caused thousands of 911 calls to be lost, and left operators with no way of calling those people back.

The flaw directly impacted the bureau’s average 911 call response time, according to Ombudsman, but it wasn’t reflected in the numbers provided to the city council. The watchdog group says bureau leaders have known about the incongruencies for years, but continue to report incorrect and misleading call response times.

“Reporting on its performance for fiscal year 2014-15, the bureau provided information to City Council that could not have been true: it reported that the bureau was answering 100% of 911 calls in under 20 seconds,” Ombudsman’s report states. “At the same time, it reported that 258 calls to 911 held for longer than 2 minutes.”

The report shows the actual number of calls answered in under 20 seconds is closer to 68%.

Employees have reportedly spoken up about the incorrect reports, in addition to the Reno Solution’s impact on the bureau’s ability to accurately reflect response times for cellphone calls. But, “for unknown reason, the problem went unaddressed.”

The Portland City Council voted Wednesday to approve the auditor’s recommendations.

The Ombudsman report is recommending city leaders follow a number of steps to ensure the 911 service’s performance data collection and reporting are accurate in the future.

“I can’t say that it was intentional,” BOEC spokesperson Laureen Paulsen said. “Nor can I say it was unintentional.”

“They absolutely misreported,” Sollinger told KOIN 6 News. “There’s evidence the city may have known about it going back to 2004.”

Paulsen told KOIN 6 News, “Why would we make the numbers look better? I’m going to tell you that I don’t know if someone lied. I think someone was given information that they deemed was valid because it comes from BTS. But why would an agency that’s chronically understaffed say, ‘Hey, we’re understaffed but we’re still meeting our goal?'”

Sollinger’s report also shows the bureau had access to the correct numbers since late last year.

But when Paulsen was asked why those numbers weren’t used in BOEC’s latest budget report this year, she said, “I honestly don’t have a viable answer for you as to why those weren’t used.”