911 limbo, what to do when you're put on hold

Posted at 11:14 PM, May 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-15 23:29:08-04

(Story from the first hand account of 7 Eyewitness News Reporter Hannah Buehler.)

It was December 23, 2017, just two days before Christmas. I was making a left from a parking lot onto Cayuga Road in Cheektowaga, during the height of an afternoon snowstorm.

I spun out, and was hit. The airbags on each side of my SUV went off, and I couldn't open my drivers side door, leaving me stranded in the middle of a busy snow and ice-covered road.

I immediately dial 911, but am put on hold. The phone rings, and rings but no one picks up.

Instead, a voice recording says, "You've reached 911, please don't hand up."

Still on hold, I crawl out the passenger door, which I could open, and go check on the other driver.

Thankfully, the person was not injured.

At this point, I'm still on hold with 911.

Cars are speeding by, and snow is falling rapidly.

According to the call log for that day, obtained through a Freedom of Information Request, the first call I placed lasted one minute, 49 seconds, with no response.

I hang up and called again, waiting another minute and six seconds.

Admittedly frustrated, I hang up again, and call back, wait another 39 seconds before hanging up again.

I call one more time, wait another minute and 14 seconds before hanging up once more.

I had been trying to get in tough with 911 now for a total of more than four minutes, which, if you've ever been in an accident or emergency situation may seem like an eternity.

I then called a friend for help.

At 2:26 p.m., 50 minutes after my last call, an operator from 911 calls me back.

"The national standard is 30 seconds or less a call should be answered in," said Lisa Sears, the Deputy Director of Erie County 911. "All four of your calls were over 30 seconds, which I apologize for, but as we've discussed it was an extremely busy hour."

Sears says that snowy day, within six hours there were 912 calls to Erie County 911.

"We can't adequately staff for them," she said. "I would have had to have every single seat filled up here to take all 912 calls in those six hours because they were coming in so rapidly."

According to the call log for that day, there were 18 calls answered between 30 and 40 seconds during the 1 p.m. hour, which is considered "poor" by Erie County standards.

45 calls were considered "unacceptable," meaning it took more than 40 seconds for 911 to retrieve the call. Ten of those calls belonged to me.

"Just be patient with us," Sears said.

"We are getting to you as quickly as we can, and when we have incidents like the November storm, those call spikes do happen and there's no way to predict them," said Sears.

Another heavy call volume day for Erie County was July 20, 2017, when three tornadoes touched down in the area.

During the noon hour alone, 174 calls for help came in that day. 87 of the calls were answered within 10 seconds, which is considered "excellent," 20 calls were answered between 30 and 40 seconds, which is considered "poor," and 32 calls fell in the "unacceptable" category, answered in more than 40 seconds.

"There are circumstances that are unpredictable that make that serge happen," said James Jancewicz, Commissioner with Erie County Central Police Services.

Erie County officials say hanging up, like I did, could be the worst thing you do.

"If you call 911 and hang up, we're going to stop and call you back when that call eventually gets to a call taker," Sears said. "By you hanging up, you're delaying response to another person in an emergency. You calling back is putting you back in the que at the end."

On an average day, call takers in Erie County receive about 2,000 emergency calls.

On the day of my accident there were 2,368 calls.

Officials say out of the 700,000 calls last year, over 98 percent were answered in less tan 30 seconds.

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