The Prince George's County emergency 911 call center will hire more employees after criticism by residents who said they were put on hold when they called to report the fast-moving fire that killed an elderly Chapel Oaks couple last week.
A neighbor was put on hold when she called 911 about the blaze. Her roommate called back from the same phone and was put on hold for a minute and a half before she got through to an operator.
"That is something we need to improve on dramatically," said Charlynn Flaherty, director of the Public Safety Communications Center.
A fire department spokesman said eight minutes elapsed between when the initial call was made and a fire unit was dispatched.
Killed in the fire were Thomas Anderson, 80, a war veteran who used a wheelchair, and his wife, Edna, 75. They had lived in the one-story house for more than a half-century.
Public Safety Director Vernon R. Herron said yesterday that the understaffed 911 center will hire additional employees as well as bring in extra call takers from other departments when necessary to ensure that calls can be answered quickly. "It is our goal and vision not to have anyone put on hold at any time," he said.
The 911 center is budgeted for a staff of 55 and has 41 call takers. Herron said he wants to fully staff the positions, which have starting pay of $27,000 a year.
Since January, the center has hired 15 people but has had a net gain of just two because of departures. Some of those who left retired; others changed jobs, Flaherty said.
At the time of the Chapel Oaks fire, the center had eight to 11 call takers on duty, a staffing level that Flaherty said is too low. From now on, there will be no fewer than 12 call takers at a time, Flaherty said, and preferably 16 to 19 during busier hours.
If there are not enough staff members to fill the positions, a supervisor will bring in a call taker from the administrative office. The fill-in would be someone certified in emergency medical dispatch, Herron said.
He also warned residents against hanging up if they reach a recording. Calls are answered in the order they are received, and if someone hangs up and calls back, that person is placed at the end of the line again.
"When someone calls 911, they want to talk to a live person right away," Herron said. "We want that, too. We are not there yet. We are doing everything we can to get there."
The average answer time for a call to 911 last year was 10 seconds, he said, which slipped from six seconds in 2003.
At the time of last week's fatal fire, there were 183 calls in 30 minutes -- more than usual, according to county officials.
Last year, the call center fielded about 1.3 million calls, or 3,500 calls a day. About 60 percent of those were legitimate emergencies; the rest were frivolous calls or non-emergency requests for information such as phone numbers or police reports.
Herron said the number of 911 calls has increased since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as well as with the proliferation of cell phones. In 2000, the center received 1.07 million calls.
In an effort to stem the tide of non-emergency calls to the 911 line, Herron said the county will set up a 311 call center for residents who have questions for county officials but do not need immediate attention. This number could be used for residents seeking county phone numbers, police reports or contact information for a specific police officer or sheriff's deputy.
Herron said he hopes to have the 311 operation running within 90 days but couldn't say how many operators it would employ.
"It will help us tremendously in terms of easing our call loads," he said.