Renee Grissom knew something was very wrong when she heard what sounded like an explosion on her home’s first floor around noon that day.
Just out of the shower, the Leawood resident stepped downstairs, and then she saw it: broken trim, glass everywhere. Someone had kicked in her front door and, for all she knew, was in the house.
She yelled, retreated upstairs and called 911 on her cellphone. A dispatcher, who turned out to be from Kansas City (more on that in a minute), came on the line and said police were busy and to please hold.
Police records show that nearly 45 seconds elapsed before Grissom, 64, hung up. “I had to do something else,” she said. Frantically, she searched for the phone number for Leawood police, but then the dispatcher called back and asked for Grissom’s address.
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“This is Kansas City,” the dispatcher said. “I’m going to have to transfer you.” Grissom’s call was then shipped to Leawood police. Almost exactly two minutes from the time Grissom’s original call entered the 911 system, a Leawood dispatcher was on the line. But she, too, placed Grissom on hold.
“It seemed like a long, long time,” said Grissom, the wife of former Kansas U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom.
By the time the dispatcher finally got back on the line, Grissom was beside herself. The intruder could still be in the house, and the only thing that separated her from him was the flimsy lock on her bedroom door. “I said, ‘This is a 911 call. I could be dead by now.’” An officer was dispatched to Grissom’s home more than two minutes after Leawood had placed her on hold.
The Leawood dispatcher stayed on the line until police arrived nine minutes after Grissom’s original call. Although the intruder ran off empty-handed after Grissom yelled, the April 25 incident shook Grissom’s faith in the 911 system. “I was much more frustrated and angry about not being able to get help than the fact that someone broke into my house,” she said.
Grissom didn’t understand that a 911 call can be put on hold. That happens routinely. She also was understandably puzzled that her call wound up with Kansas City police instead of Leawood police. That development also is not unusual, a byproduct of our cellular age and the coverage territory of the cellphone tower that handled Grissom’s 911 call. Residents living near the state line or near other municipalities are susceptible to having calls routed to jurisdictions other than their own, and experts say there’s no fix available — at least not yet.
In other words, a 911 system that many residents believe affords them virtually instant access to police in reality is something else. Grissom wants her fellow citizens to understand that.
Indeed, explaining the realities of the 911 system to an unsuspecting public is job one.
“The education process is something that someway, somehow we need to figure out,” said Platte County Sheriff Mark Owen, who chairs the regional Public Safety Communications Board.
In Kansas City, for instance, police announced last week that the average wait time to answer a 911 call was 21 seconds. That’s an improvement from a 57-second average last fall, but still far off the national standard that calls for 90 percent of all emergency calls to be answered in 10 seconds or less.
Grissom has other suggestions: Call takers need to ask right away from which city a person is calling. That could save vital seconds. Also, she said, police should advertise their direct contact numbers in case 911 is jammed.
Finally, police agencies must ensure that they have full complements of dispatchers. That’s been a huge problem in Kansas City where the department recently received approval to add 15 dispatchers. That’s a big improvement, but still 10-20 dispatchers short of optimum staffing, police said, although a 2017 study concluded the department needed but eight more call takers.
In Platte County, Owen is down five dispatchers and faces a daunting turnover rate. “I don’t think we’ve been more than 70 percent full the last two years,” he said.
The job is demanding with call takers expected to navigate a series of computer screens. Multi-tasking is imperative. The stress level can be through the roof. The pay? A max of $36,000 a year in Platte County. Owen knows it’s not enough.
A new state law could help. Lawmakers passed a bill last week that would create a cellphone 911 service fee of up to $1 a month. The money could go to equipment, training and the hiring of dispatchers. Voters would have to approve, and those elections should be held as soon as possible. Police also say system upgrades are on the way that will help pinpoint a caller’s location. They can’t come soon enough.
Residents depend on 911. Kansas City area communities must ensure that they are providing the best possible 911 system. It can mean the difference between life and death.