Live 5 Investigation: Slow Response to 911

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - If you called 911 right now, what would you do if you didn't get any answer?  Live 5 News has learned it can take a while to reach a dispatcher.

A personnel shortage at Charleston County's call center means it's taking more time to answer your emergencies.

Shortly after noon on Wednesday, stay-at-home mom, Ashley Bastian saw a stranger at the back door of her North Charleston home.

"It looked like he was kicking my back door, trying to kick it in," she said.

Bastian was scared, but said she didn't panic until she couldn't get through to someone when she dialed 911.

"They didn't answer," she continued.

Her cell phone showed her call rang for a minute and six seconds.

The county's preliminary investigation shows her call from a land line was answered in one minute.

But, Bastian maintains that's too long for someone in danger. It's not the first time Bastian and her fiancé say they've had this happen.

Last spring, Bastian had a serious medical emergency.

"The phone just rang, just rang," said Christopher Jenkins.

The former military police officer said he managed to get his fiancé and newborn baby in the car, and drove to the emergency center himself.

"It was quite frightening," Jenkins continued.

Jenkins said the dispatcher eventually called him when he was minutes away from the medical center. Even worse, he said, there was no offer to help.

"Everything was pretty much on me," he said.

We recently paid a visit to the Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch where they handle calls from across the county.

The average answer time, according to director James Lake, is a matter of seconds, but he's concerned that it's not as fast as it used to be.

"Seven seconds it takes us to answer that call as compared to what it used to be two years ago, when we would answer that in three seconds," Lake said.

It's a problem, Lake says, they're hoping to solve with people.

"We were 40 people short," Lake continued.

When staffing is stretched, it takes longer to answer your calls.

The average answer time has grown from 1.9 seconds at the start of 2014 to seven seconds in September.

In December, the county put out a call to recruit dispatchers. More than 400 people applied, but few will end up working for the county.

Training is a four to six month process, and that's not counting the months it takes to be hired.

Airianne Parsons is a dispatcher trainee who started classes in December.  She said she began her application process in July.

She'll graduate soon to the dispatch center, and once there, she will face plenty of stress.

Inside the classroom, instructor Chantelle Mitchell explains what the trainees will face, including decapitation, burns, and someone who is decomposing.

The question is, how long can the dispatchers spend their work days helping people deal with the worst?

"Industry-wide, if they stay three years, they'll probably stay," said Lake. "Usually that first three years determines if this is the job for you."

Lake said it's not just the stress that prompts a career change.

Pay is about $15 an hour.

"So if you imagine being paid a clerical wage to go do a clerical job, but you are responsible for somebody's life and death or their house burning down or other officer's safety on the street, there's quite a difference in between," Lake continued.

The county uses staffing agencies to fill in the gaps with temp workers answering non-emergency calls.

Staff works overtime, totaling $1.4 million in overtime in 2015.  Workers have already clocked a million dollars in overtime for the first half of this fiscal year. 

While the county searches for more dispatchers, you're asked to hang in there, and stay on the phone until they answer.

After his experiences, Jenkins has a suggestion, too.

"Try to be as calm as possible," he said.

A Charleston County spokesman provided a response by email after Live 5 News asked for a review of Ashley Bastian's call on Wednesday:

The first 9-1-1 call (landline) was placed at 12:28. After the phone rang 10 times, the caller appeared to lay the phone down, but did not disconnect, and picked up her cell phone to initiate a second call.

The call from the landline (first call) was answered at 12:29 after 17 rings.

When the call taker answered the landline call, the caller appeared on the line requesting police assistance for a subject attempting to gain entry into her residence. The call was sent to for dispatch at 12:29.

During her call, there were 6 call takers answering incoming calls.
Call taker 1 was on a 9-1-1 open line (9-1-1 open lines are calls in which someone has dialed 9-1-1, intentionally or accidentally, and the line remains open)
Call taker 2 was on a 9-1-1 open line
Call taker 3 was taking a hit and run accident call
Call taker 4 was taking a medical call
Call taker 5 was taking a medical call
Call taker 6 was taking a call from Berkeley County SO (Sheriff's Office)

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