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Staff shortages send Portland non-emergency wait times skyrocketing

The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management urged people on Friday to hold off on calling the non-emergency line or to file a report online.

PORTLAND, Conn. — Wait times for people calling Portland's non-emergency number were so high on Friday, the bureau asked people not to call — or at least hold off if they could. 

The Portland Bureau of Emergency Communication (BOEC) said limited staffing and a higher volume of calls were to blame for the hours-long wait times. While staff shortages are an ongoing issue at the agency, Friday's long wait times stemmed from an unexpected number of employees calling out sick, a spokesperson said. 

The same dispatchers are responsible for both 911 and non-emergency calls, and 911 calls are always prioritized. Officials urged people to file police reports online if possible, or wait to call non-emergency later. 

The typical wait time for a non-emergency call fluctuates depending on how much is happening at any given time — it's not uncommon for people to wait 30 minutes or even up to an hour, but several hours is unusual, the agency said. People making emergency 911 calls may experience a slightly longer hold time, but not the hours-long waits for non-emergency calls.

"As of last year,  we saw a massive increase in 911 calls over the same weeks as previous years. Depending on the week we might be getting 20-40% more 911 emergency calls than the same point last year. That’s a huge increase. It’s something that’s being seen in other parts of the country, but it’s very difficult to have enough staff respond to all those calls," said Dan Douthit, a spokesperson for BOEC and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.

The long wait times are expected to last into Saturday but "hopefully not longer than that," Douthit said. 

A 2021 KGW Investigation found BOEC doesn’t answer 911 calls fast enough, consistently failing to meet the national standard of answering 90% of all 911 calls within 15 seconds. In June of last year, BOEC answered only 30% of its 911 calls within 15 seconds. 

The agency is beefing up its staff in an attempt to meet demand, but training is slow. It takes 18 months to 2 years to fully train a dispatcher, Douthit said. 

BOEC just rolled out a new automatic callback system for 911 calls that get disconnected, which should free up dispatcher time. 

The agency hopes a new citywide 311 system will eventually reduce call volume by directing non-emergency calls currently answered by BOEC to 311. When fully staffed and operational, 311 will be a non-emergency public services line people can use to file complaints about issues such as noise, graffiti, and other low-priority problems. 

There is currently no timeline to launch the new 311 system to the public, but the city says it's in progress. 

"We’re aware of this issue. We think its unacceptable," Douthit said. "We’re doing everything we can to improve the system to be able to have them be able to reach a call taker. We appreciate their patience as we work through this issue." 

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