ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Someone's in trouble - a fire, a heart attack, a crime in progress - so you call 911. Instead of getting help, you're put on hold to weigh every second between life and death.
A News 4 investigation revealed St. Louis City is well above the national average of response time to 911 calls and residents are left with frustration. Jason Stokes saw armed men in his Tower Grove South neighborhood recently and fearfully facing danger, he called 911.
"I was truly afraid someone was going to get hurt or killed a block away from my house. I would expect or hope that someone answers the phone and the police show up quickly afterwards,” Stokes said, adding something is "broken" with the system.
His calls to 911 were put on hold and then the same happened again; men with guns in his neighborhood and 911 calls. "It took over five minutes to get ahold of somebody. In that time someone pulled out a gun and started shooting," Stokes said. Stokes’ situation is not isolated. Through a variety of data sources, News 4 Investigates found that the 911 service in St. Louis is falling far behind.
"That's not good for the public and frankly that's not good for the police department,” UMSL Professor Emeritus and Criminologist Rick Rosenfeld said. “When more than half are put on hold, that's an issue."
Rosenfeld said the data paints an important picture and it all comes down to something called a Grade of Service; a report card for dispatch centers. National standards dictate 90-95% of 911 calls should be answered within 10 or 15 seconds.
Former St. Louis Police Communications Commander Dan Howard said it's a number he used to monitor very closely when he worked at the department. He said the Grade of Service is the department's measurement, adding “90% is acceptable, under 90 is not acceptable.”
News 4 made multiple information requests and discovered that other major metropolitan areas get pretty close to hitting the appropriate mark. For example, Nashville answered 85.5% of 911 calls within ten seconds in 2020. In the last month of available data, Memphis hit 89%. Kansas City’s numbers were more than 92%.
Closer to home, St. Charles County answered 99% of their calls in 2020 within 10 seconds and St. Louis County hit 89% in December 2020. St. Louis City tanked.
The city's Grade of Service in 2020 was an overall average of 65%. However, certain day shifts have a lower average. Numbers show during the morning shift, 50% of 911 calls were put on hold for more than ten seconds. That's half the calls dispatchers receive in the morning hours.
"I have never heard numbers that low and boy that's not good. It’s very shocking," Howard said. "And I am not going sit here and judge the people that are working there; they are heroes. I am just telling you they need help and they need it in the form of staff. Because I have never seen or heard of a 50% Grade of Service."
Howard said he also used to lose sleep over "abandoned calls." Calls that never reach a dispatcher because the caller hung up. In July 2020 in St. Louis, more than one in four calls were abandoned and never got through at all.
“That's a loss for us. They needed us and we weren't there,” Howard said.
Lt. Demetrius Elston is the current commander over the 911 center in the city and he said the situation is "not acceptable." News 4 couldn't go inside the dispatch center due to COVID-19 but we still wanted answers about the data. We asked what Elston thought of the data when compared to the national average.
He said "that's a good question" and "I am still trying to learn that. Four months in I am still trying to look at those numbers."
St. Louis' Grade of Service has been degrading every year since 2017 and while Elston acknowledges the numbers are lower than the department would like, he disagrees with the alarm.
“I wouldn’t say it's a crisis level, but it is also what type of events we are handling at that time," Elston said. "We might have two shootings at the same time and that might generate a lot of calls."
He points to people bogging down the system with calls that aren't emergencies, like someone calling with a medical question or calling for assistance not requiring the police. Elston said these calls "take away from us answering the real 911 calls we need to."
“Something is broken and someone needs to look at it and figure out what that is" - Jason Stokes.
COVID-19-related questions are also frequent and the department simply doesn't have enough people to answer calls. “We are definitely understaffed, and we definitely need more help," Elston said.
The department is currently 18 dispatchers short of being fully staffed and Elston said it's due to a high turnover.
“Sometimes people get in there and say 'this is not for me, I don't want to do this' Because they see how fast-paced it can be. The stress of it,” Elston said.
Although Howard is no longer with the department, he said it's clear the city needs to pay its dispatchers more and "someone in leadership needs to step up and say this is a problem and someone needs to solve it."
As for the residents, Stokes hopes he doesn't get into a dangerous situation again and need to call 911.
"If you can't handle it on a day-to-day basis, how would you handle it when things really go south?" Stokes said.
We are told St. Louis starts their dispatchers off at a lower pay than surrounding agencies so they have a hard time filling spots and keeping people in the job.
The department recently announced a new software system that will allow them to better prioritize 911 calls over non-emergency calls. They hope the new system will improve their numbers significantly.