PSAPs Struggle with 9-1-1 Call Overload, Abandoned Calls
September 14, 2011
Emergency 9-1-1 system and public-safety answering points (PSAPs) are increasingly overwhelmed by the volume of calls and, in times of peak call numbers, often have abandoned calls because of long wait times.
“With new mobile devices and the increased call volume, there is an overload of too many calls,” said Kevin Murray, the 9-1-1 Industry Alliance (9IA) chairman. 9IA’s goal is to insure adequate funding and research for 9-1-1 centers. “Our members think 9-1-1 calls are approaching 300 million a year, but the staffing and funding has not kept up,” Murray said.
9IA is hosting the National Workshop on 9-1-1 Overload Oct. 4 – 5 to start a conversation about the problem. Bringing together senior-level policymakers and government officials, the workshop plans to examine causes, address different perspectives and consider future options. “Industry leaders and new technology will start to bring about solutions,” Murray said.
The Orleans (La.) Parish Communication District (OPCD) published a staff information paper March 15, outlining how budget cuts have negatively impacted the emergency service center to combat call overload. The executive summary states that the National Emergency Number Association’s (NENA) standard for answering 9-1-1 calls is at least 90 percent of all calls must be answered within 10 seconds and 95 percent of all calls must be answered within 20 seconds. In April 2010, the Orleans Parish 9-1-1 Center exceeded the standards, with 98 percent of all calls answered within 10 seconds.
However, between April and December 2010, the number of call-takers was cut by nearly 50 percent, from 65 to 34, because of budget layoffs and voluntary resignations. From June through October 2010, the employees still working were also required to take furlough days. At the same time, call volume increased. The center dropped from exceeding the requirement to falling below. In December, only 89.2 percent of calls were answered within 20 seconds, and five callers waited eight minutes for their calls to be answered.
“It is reasonable to conclude that the layoffs, furloughs, voluntary resignations and increased call volume have had negative impact on New Orleans Police Department’s (NOPD) ability to answer 9-1-1 calls in a timely manner,” the report said. “A major incident could overload the thinly staffed 9-1-1 system.”
If a call center is experiencing call overload, wait times and the number of abandoned calls increase. In a 2009 study in California, more than 26 percent of mobile calls were abandoned, Murray said. “As the devices increase, the issue is becoming more evident.”
An abandoned call is when the caller hangs up before he is connected to a call-taker. “Once a caller has dialed 9-1-1, the call is immediately placed into the 9-1-1 network and the call is still routed to the PSAP, even if the caller hangs up and is no longer on the line,” said the OPCD report. “The caller information is presented as an abandoned call to the 9-1-1 call-taking equipment, and is displayed in an abandoned call list.”
If a call is abandoned, the PSAP call-taker must call the number back to determine if assistance is needed, according to a June 2006 NENA report on call-taking operational standards and model recommendations. If more than 20 percent of calls are abandoned, that many calls must be returned to establish if they are an emergency.
9-1-1 calls are increasingly coming from cell phones, with Champagne, Ill., reporting up to 80 percent of calls being made by wireless devices, Murray said. This brings a variety of problems, and the workshop plans to highlight several.
One factor is the sheer number of people who have cell phones. If everyone is walking around with devices, people can easily call whenever there is an incident, Murray said. From a PSAP perspective, it’s too many people with too many devices, he said.
Another problem is the number of calls placed to report one incident. An example is an accident on a highway, in which everyone on the road has a device and calls to report the same accident. In Alabama, New York and New Orleans, people calling about major storms have overloaded emergency 9-1-1 systems, Murray said.
A third factor is people calling for nonemergencies. Despite the education and outreach done to inform the public about when to call 9-1-1, centers deal with nonemergency calls on a daily basis. A report by MSNBC said the emergency operators in Lee County, Fla., received about 3,600 nonemergency calls a month.
Another problem is calls from nonservice-initialized cell phones. One of the panel speakers, Lynn Questell, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, will discuss the issue at the workshop. It’s a problem that stems from a 2002 FCC order that made it a law that cell phones must continue to dial 9-1-1 even after the phone is no longer associated with a carrier or plan. If there is a battery in the phone, it has to be able to call 9-1-1.
Often problems arise when old phones are given to children to play with or when the service is purposely used to harass the emergency line. Questell and her staff conducted a three-month survey and discovered that Tennessee received 10,000 noninitialized calls in the three months. “It ties up resources like you would not believe,” she said.
In February 2008, Questell, joined by NENA, the National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators (NASNA), as well as the states of Michigan, Montana, New Jersey and Washington, submitted a petition to the FCC. The petition asked the FCC to address the problem.
“I thought once the FCC found out about the problem, they would have been eager to fix it,” Questell said. “It’s a problem they created.”
After submitting the petition, the FCC asked for reply comments, but further action has stalled. Questell submitted a reply brief and in July 2009 sent a letter to the FCC Chairman asking him to resurrect the docket. She addressed it again at this year’s NENA national conference. “It’s so tremendously disappointing that it’s going nowhere,” she said.
“I would like them to talk to us, for someone to just have the conversation,” she said. “There were some really good comments filed. But it’s a very complicated issue, so it needs a conversation. 9IA is showing their leadership that they’ve invited a panel member to discuss it.”
The two-day event will feature panels and discussions on each topic of interest to address the overall problem of overload. “This is new for 9IA, but we feel the conversation has relevance and importance for the public,” Murray said. “We hope to bring together experts to start solving problems.”