Last Friday night, after a rainstorm, Greg Kalt and his wife were driving home along the narrow, twisting, unlit roads of North Stamford.
They went around a curve and came upon a fallen tree.
“We thought someone might hit it, like we almost did, and we didn’t know if there were any downed wires,” Kalt said. “We wanted to give a heads-up on it.”
In the passenger seat, his wife called 911, Kalt said.
No one answered.
He drove a little more and his wife dialed 911 again, Kalt said.
Nearing their street, she tried again, and still no answer, he said.
“After we got home, she tried 911 again and somebody picked up. They said, ‘We’ve been busy tonight,’” Kalt said. “That’s fine if you’re ordering a pizza, but not if you need help.”
The Kalts ended up contacting the Stamford Fire Department, where someone assured them they would respond.
But Kalt was concerned that, three times, no one picked up the phone at Stamford’s 911 dispatch center. So, the following day, he posted the experience on the social media platform NextDoor.
Some NextDoor readers posted that they have had similar experiences, and one offered an explanation.
Mike Lockwood, who wrote that he’s been a Stamford 911 dispatcher for 27 years, said he could confirm what people were posting on NextDoor.
“I want to say you’re right! It’s sad that when someone calls 911 it doesn’t get picked up right away. It should,” Lockwood wrote.
He wrote that the city’s population is 136,309, “not including all of the people that travel in and out of our city every day,” and the 911 dispatch center answers all routine and emergency calls for police, fire and EMS.
The center has two police dispatchers who “are responsible for the health and well being of the officers on the road,” plus one dispatcher for fire and EMS, Lockwood wrote.
But the center at times has only two dispatchers to field the calls coming in from the public, Lockwood wrote.
“So I agree with the majority here. It’s unacceptable,” Lockwood posted. “And I would love it if you all said something to your reps, or as some of you said, tell the mayor. Because we are getting inundated and it’s OVERWHELMING. So yes, please do. Because no one seems to listen to us.”
On Wednesday Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Mayor Caroline Simmons, said in an email that Kalt’s experience “was a unique situation that does not involve any issues regarding cellular service or staffing levels.”
At the time of the call, six dispatchers were on shift, including three call takers, which is above the dispatch center’s minimum staffing level of five, Meyer wrote.
“One of the call takers was assisting with an emergency police investigation related to a missing child. At 9:41:15 p.m., two calls came into 911 simultaneously; at the time, one of the call takers was on a personal break,” Meyer wrote. “One of the 9:41:15 p.m. calls was answered and the second 9:41:15 p.m. caller hung up after 41 seconds; they called back and hung up after 53 seconds. When they called back a third time, the call was connected after three seconds and lasted a total of 27 seconds.”
Public Safety Director Lou DeRubeis investigated and “confirmed that at no time were there any disruptions to 911 service,” Meyer wrote.
But Lockwood’s post on NextDoor describes the exact numbers of dispatchers per shift – two for police, one for fire, and at times two call-takers for the public – that caused staff shortage concerns eight years ago.
In July 2014 Lockwood was among 30 dispatchers, members of UAW Local 2377, who signed a letter to the Board of Representatives warning about dangers created by a reduction in May of that year in the number of dispatchers required to be on the floor at a given time.
The requirement was dropped from six to five – the same level as in 1978, despite a jump in Stamford’s population in the ensuing 36 years, according to the dispatchers’ letter. Stamford’s population increased from 102,000 to 121,000 between 1978 and 2014, dispatchers wrote in their letter to the board.
It meant that there were times when two dispatchers were taking calls from the public and, with breaks, just one, dispatchers wrote.
“We have had several medical calls for service … that went unanswered and had to be relayed over the fire radio, including a request for service on the Merritt Parkway for a motor vehicle accident with injuries,” dispatchers wrote in 2014. “We have had a call from the nurse at Westhill High School for someone having an anxiety attack and difficulty breathing that went unanswered. There were only two (dispatchers) answering phones that day and both were busy with other emergency calls. The nurse finally got through on a routine line.”
The dispatchers told city representatives in 2014 that they were not asking for staff increases, “but we are asking for the staffing levels to be put back to what they were prior to January 2009; a six dispatcher minimum floor staff, seven days per week on all shifts – three call-takers, two police dispatchers, and one fire dispatcher.”
But, as Meyer wrote in her email on Wednesday, the staffing minimum now, when Stamford’s population has ballooned to more than 136,000, remains at five.
According to Meyer’s email, the standard set by the Connecticut Division of Statewide Emergency Telecommunications is that 90 percent of all 911 calls must be answered within 10 seconds. The Stamford dispatch center answers 94 percent of calls within 10 seconds – beating the statewide average of 89 percent, Meyer wrote.
Director of Emergency Communications Joe Gaudett on Wednesday “implemented enhanced procedures to ensure emergency and non-emergency calls are handled as timely and efficiently as possible,” Meyer wrote.
The city is re-launching its public safety website page and “will continue to provide educational information to the public, including emphasizing that if someone calls 911, they should stay on the line and not hang up until the call is answered,” Meyer wrote.
She said the Stamford 911 dispatch center handles an average 132 emergency calls per day – or an average of 5.8 per hour. Dispatchers also answer an average of 262 non-emergency calls per day, according to Meyer.
So far this year the center has received 41,733 emergency calls, Meyer said. The total nearly doubles to 82,942 when non-emergency calls are included.
Stamford Police Association President Dave O’Meara said Tuesday he had not heard about problems with 911 calls.
“I’m not aware of it,” O’Meara said. “We will definitely look into the matter. We got that complaint going on.”
Last month the city stopped assigning a sergeant to midnight and weekend shifts at the 911 dispatch center, prompting the police union to file a complaint with the Connecticut Board of Labor Relations. Since the change, a sergeant supervises 911 dispatchers only on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The union believes the move could affect the safety of the officers and the dispatch operation, O’Meara said.
City officials for years have discussed employing an all-civilian staff at the 911 dispatch center, which is a growing practice among police departments.
Kalt’s city representative, Susan Nabel, said members of the Board of Representatives will discuss the 911 call system during the Nov. 30 meeting of the board’s Public Safety Committee. For information about the virtual meeting, which begins at 7:30 p.m., visit this link.
Kalt said he just wants to know that the system is fixed.
“It’s one of those things where there’s no room for error – it has to be 100 percent,” Kalt said. “It’s a major safety issue. It has to be a priority of the city.”