911 Communications, Police, Fire, Tucson

Call takers at their desks at the City of Tucson Public Safety Communications Center.

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If your Instagram page won’t load or your Uber is running late, please don’t dial 911.

City officials coping with “critically low staffing levels” at Tucson’s 911 center are asking the public to think twice before they call about whether their issue truly is an emergency.

The three-digit hotline for police, fire and medical help typically gets hundreds of calls a day that are not the least bit urgent, said Chad Kasmar, deputy chief of the Tucson Police Department and the interim head of 911 operations.

“People are using 911 as a catch-all when they don’t know who to call,” Kasmar said.

He and other officials rhymed off a string of recent examples of calls to 911:

  • “I don’t know how to upload my picture to Snapchat.”
  • “I need a ride to the airport.”
  • “There’s a bird loose at the grocery store and I don’t know what to do.”
  • “I don’t know where to pay my water bill.”
  • “There’s a pothole on my street and I want to report it.”

“I would say probably 30% of the calls we get don’t belong to 911,” said Geoff Kuhn, an administrator in the city’s Public Safety Communications Department, which operates the emergency hotline, which handles an average of 4,000 calls per day.

A precise figure for such calls isn’t available because officials only recently started tracking them more closely to figure out the best way to reduce them, he said. The department already diverts calls about homelessness or mental health crises to social service agencies.

Non-urgent calls have always occurred in the 911 system, both locally and nationally, but “it’s become a larger problem” in Tucson over the last several years, Kuhn said.

He said 911 staffers aim to be helpful to such callers, but it’s tough when the switchboard is jammed with calls about heart attacks, car crashes, suicides, gunfire and other life-threatening incidents.

“That is always the challenge,” he said, especially now when the 911 center is understaffed by 33% during a hiring and retention crisis. The center is authorized for 165 personnel but only has 100 available for duty during any 24-hour period.

The problems behind the 911 staffing crisis were identified last year in a $40,000 consultant’s study. A City Hall subcommittee is overseeing the progress of recommended improvements.

There are laws against abusing the 911 system, but “it’s really not our goal to turn 911 callers into criminals,” Kuhn said.

“I think if we can educate the community it will help us in our current situation,” he said.

The Tucson police, fire and Pima County sheriff’s departments all maintain general non-emergency phone numbers to contact the departments. Information is available at their respective websites:

www.tucsonaz.gov/police

www.tucsonaz.gov/fire

www.pimasheriff.org

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @AzStarConsumer

This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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