The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

A Rhode Island 501c3 Non-Profit

Holding Pattern

Rhode Island’s 911 system was created in 1988 to give people a way to get help quickly and easily in an emergency. But the agency has seen continual decreases in manpower over the past decade, resulting in more than 16,000 callers put on hold in 2014 - up  25 percent in four years. We found a surcharge on everyone’s cell phone and landline that generates millions of dollars originally earmarked for the agency isn’t going to 911. Jim Hummel explains where the money is going.


Click here to watch our 2011 report on the 911 system.


``911. Is your emergency police, fire or medical?’’

Fifteen hundred times a day on average 911 operators ask that question, on the front lines of a response when there is an emergency in Rhode Island. More than half a million calls last year came here to the statewide E-911 center housed in the State Police headquarters complex in Scituate - then routed to the appropriate local agency.

It’s a high-stress job where seconds matter - literally, especially if somebody is having a heart attack, or a burglar is breaking into a house.

O’Donnell: ``Employees matter. You have to answer that phone.’’

Rhode Island State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell  also oversees the state Department of Public Safety and the E-911 system.

But 911, which every cell phone and landline owner helps funds through a monthly surcharge, has seen a steady decrease in manpower since it was established in 1988. At the same time the number of calls put on hold has increased 25 percent the past four years.

The Hummel Report first looked at the issue in 2011, discovering that 13,000 calls that year went into queue - the agency’s term for put on hold. Some for as a little as two seconds, the longest two minutes and the average just under 12 seconds.

Twelve seconds may not seem like a lot but during an emergency....

`You've reached 911 - please stay on the line.''

And we profiled a local restaurant owner who couldn’t get through to 911 when one of her customers fell and hit her head. She gave up and dialed the Smithfield Police Department directly - like we all did before 911.

Belknap: ``I said I don't know what's going on, but thank God I didn't have an armed gunman in here shooting someone and I only had one phone call and it was to 911 and no one answered.''

The situation has gotten worse.

Last year more than 16,000 calls were put on hold - that’s an average of 45 a day and up more than 3,000 calls from four years ago.

O’Donnell:  ``There’s an expectation that when you call 911 you’re not put on hold. That would be an expectation of everybody. The reality is, sometimes people are.’’

Col. O’Donnell said 911 does an exceptional job under the circumstances, noting that the calls put on hold account for only 3 percent of last year’s 511,000 calls, and that some of them come when there is a major emergency and multiple people are calling in simultaneously about the same problem.

O’Donnell: ``If you have a call for say a serious motor vehicle accident you may get 25 calls.  And so the volume of calls, if you have six telecummicators is just the way it works.’’

But the numbers tell the story: When 911 was established 26 years ago there were 60 telecommunicators to handle 100,000 calls. A decade ago the manpower was down to 44. And the past several years it’s been 29 operators to handle five times the original number of calls.

Although the center can accommodate up to 14 telecommunicators, sometimes there have been as few as five on a given shift. On the day we visited last week there were six on duty, plus a supervisor.

Hummel: ``Ten years ago they had more than 40 telecommunictors taking calls down there. Did you know that?’’

O’Donnell: ``I do.’’

Hummel: ``And so now we’re down 10 or 11. How does that happen?’’

O’Donnell: ``Well it’s the consistent doing more with less across the board statewide. It really has nothing to do with public safety. Every year since I’ve been the a colonel, and even as lt. colonel, we prepare budgets and somewhere you gotta to cut. If you’re over budget you have to cut.’’

Hummel: ``And I understand all that. If you had 40 people down there right now, do you think these numbers would be dramatically less?’’

O’Donnell: ``Oh of course, numbers change, numbers would change calls in queue.‘’

In order to handle the calls the department has had to call back telecommunicators for forced overtime. One told us four years ago he could not handle the stress of watching calls go on hold repeatedly and ultimately left his job.

This year the surcharge we all pay on cell phones and landlines will bring in more than $17 million - but 911 is only getting $5.4 million of that - because the General Assembly years ago eliminated so-called restricted receipt accounts. In other words, the money goes into the General Fund and 911 has to fight for its budget every year along with every other department. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Mattiellp: ``One way of the other it goes to the General Fund, or public safety. I want to point out that the total public safety budget is closer to $90 million - that’s got to be paid for one way or another.’’

We sat down with House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Tuesday. The speaker said he has confidence in the 911 system and relies on Col. O’Donnell’s recommendations every year at budget time.

Mattiello: ``We will consider their budget requests in this legislative session and we’ll make sure it’s appropriately funded. And that will be a collaboration between public safety and our finance committee.

Hummel: ``If it was originally intended for 911, should the state be charging people for something, where the money is really going for something else? It wasn’t established for public safety, or state police or anything else. It was 911.’’

Mattiello: ``That’s a different issue. We’re not going to build a 911 system that’s bigger than it needs to be, that’s inefficient or inappropriate . Whether or not we should reconsider the fees we charge on it that’s a totally different issue and of course we’ll always look at all of those issues.’’

Col. O’Donnell says five new telecommunicators are coming on board this week, but there is a six-month training period to get them fully up and running. And there is no net gain in employees as 911 recently lost three people and was already down several more that had not been funded.

24:53 We’re $170 million short in the state, so somewhere there has to be cuts. If it’s 911, fire marshal, state police, DPS or the other agencies that submit requests if there was extra money out there, everybody would be looking to put it toward their people. What’s a priority//So I think the legislature has to figure out what’s a priority from all the different agencies. And what can work best in different agencies.: 21

So if you call 911 and hear this….

….now you’ll know why your call is going on hold.

26:34 In a perfect world I’d l  ike to see zero, I think as a superintendent of state police and commissioner of public safety, no one should be put on hold, but the reality is sometimes people are.

In Scituate, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.