Brian Fietsam was coming home early Saturday morning when he saw a speeding car bobbing and weaving through traffic on I-64 in downtown St. Louis.
"It was very scary," he told me. "I thought he was going hit somebody or something."
Fietsam was going westbound through the city around 1:15 am. He called 9-1-1, and got a recording, which meant he was on hold. His girlfriend, who was driving, also called, and she got a recording too, saying a 911 operator would get the call as soon as possible. The reckless driver in front of them got away. Both of them hung up the phone without talking to a live operator. It's unclear how long they waited. Fietsam believes he was on hold for a minute or two.
I learned that waiting on hold is not unusual for people who call 911 in the city of St. Louis. In fact, from 1-1:30 am, around the time Fietsam and his girlfriend called, 911 was so busy 41% of the calls were answered by a recording, which put the callers in line to talk with a live operator. Granted, that was an unusually high percentage of calls that got the recording, but it was significant if you were one of the people waiting for an operator. The police department says there were simply too many calls at that time for the number of operators on duty. Most people on the recorded line got an operator within ten seconds.
So, what happens after you get the recording, and are placed on hold?
Callers are kicked to the recording if the call isn't answered within ten seconds. A flashing blue light goes on in the 911 center, and supervisors begin to answer waiting calls. An electronic board next to the blue light shows how many callers are holding, and how long they've been waiting. Most of those calls are answered within a few seconds, but between 1am and 2am last Saturday, one caller waited more than two minutes to talk with a live operator.
According to Lt. Col. Paul Nocchiero, the St. Louis City police commander who oversees 911, the city's "Grade of Service," or GOS, has been 85% for the last three years. The goal for large urban 911 centers is 90%, which means the city is underperforming. Nocchiero agrees that the city could do better, but he says 911 operators do an outstanding job, and that the problem lies in not having enough of them to field calls. It's a money issue, he told me.
Tens of thousands of calls are "disconnected" every year. Presumably, because the callers hung up, or a cell phone user entered an area with no service. According to Nocchiero, at least five major service providers have the technology that allows 911 operators to return disconnected calls because the cell phone numbers show up in 911 records. Those providers, according to Nocchiero, are AT & T, TMobile, Sprint, Nextel and US Cellular.
Fietsam told me he's lost some confidence in the 911 system, but not the operators who do their best to answer every call. They just need more money to have enough people to take those calls, he told me.
Brian Fietsam asked us to investigate his story, and we did. If you'd like us to investigate one of "Your Stories" send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.