Some Oakland residents are waiting 20 minutes or longer to reach 911 operators, I-Team finds

Thursday, December 14, 2023
Oakland 911 response times worst in CA, I-Team data shows
Oakland is at risk of losing critical funding due to its worsening 911 response times which have now become the worst in CA, according to the I-Team.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Oakland is failing to meet the state standard when it comes to responding to 911 emergencies. New data analyzed by the ABC7 News I-Team shows the city's response is worsening, even after a warning from the state - and it's threatening access to critical funding.

It's a new breaking point for Jesus Pelayo.

"911 wouldn't even pick up," he said. "You never know what you're going to get."

He told the I-Team he had to wait more than 20 minutes to reach a 911 operator as his friend was having a heart attack.

"It's unbelievable, but it truly happens."

Pelayo isn't alone. The city's 911 system has failed residents thousands of times over the past year, according to the latest data from the California Office of Emergency Services, or Cal OES.

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OPD's 911 center receives more than a half million calls each year. The I-Team learned the city's Emergency Communication Center failed to answer about half of those calls within the state's requirement in recent years. Cal OES requires 911 calls to be answered within 15 seconds 90 percent of the time.

The state has threatened to withhold funding to Oakland if the city fails to improve its 911 response times within a year, according to a letter from Cal OES. But that letter was sent six months ago and the response times have worsened.

The state has threatened to withhold funding to Oakland if the city fails to improve its 911 response times within a year, according to a letter from CALOES.
California has threatened to withhold funding to Oakland if the city fails to improve its 911 response times within a year, according to a letter from CALOES.

The average time it took for a dispatcher to answer a 911 call in 2020 was 28 seconds. In 2023 through late November, that figure is nearly double at 55.8 seconds. And that's not accounting for the hold time.

Compared to other local emergency systems across the state, during June of this year - which is the most up-to-date statewide data we obtained - Oakland Police Department had the worst average at 62 seconds.

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Oakland PD, CHP Golden Gate Division (Vallejo), San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, and the Alameda County Sheriff all make the top 10.

Look at the chart below to see every local jurisdiction's average 911 answer time for the first six months of 2023.

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Residents report to the I-Team that they've been stuck on hold while trying to call for help after an assault or robbery, or even while trying to report alleged human trafficking operations.

"Just ridiculous... Oakland is no longer Oakland anymore," said the owner of an East Oakland auto body shop.

"There are times where folks are hanging on 911 for 30 minutes or longer... we're talking about real emergencies," said Preston Turner, special assistant for Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo.

Turner says he receives dozens of complaints like that each week.

"Too many to count," he said.

According to a recent Alameda County Grand Jury report, the city's Emergency Communications Center is not well prepared for a major disaster and lacks a disaster recovery plan. And the city agreed with that finding.

In September, the mayor announced plans for major upgrades.

RELATED: Oakland leaders announce $2.5 million funding to improve 911 response times

"We are also preparing a major upgrade to our Computer Aided Dispatch center (the CAD system). This will help connect responders to the scene of a call," said Mayor Sheng Thao during a press conference.

But those upgrades were needed back in 2018. According to the grand jury's findings, OPD's CAD software supplied by Motorola is 20 years old. The city purchased technology back in 2018 - but records show it was never implemented. City officials raised concerns that it may be too late given Motorola recommends making major upgrades to their technology every five years.

"That money was supposed to go to technology upgrades," said Councilmember Dan Kalb.

The I-Team asked the mayor's office about this, but staff could not provide us with a direct response. They also couldn't clarify if any upgrades have actually been completed.

However, the following statement was provided:

"Oakland's hardworking 911 dispatchers need more support to ensure they the resources they need to answer and dispatch emergency calls in a timely manner. In September, Mayor Thao secured $2.5 million to support dispatcher hiring and upgrade the infrastructure and technology at Oakland's 911 dispatch center. As a result, Oakland is recruiting new dispatchers, taking deliberate steps to retain veteran dispatchers, and replacing the city's antiquated Computer Aided Dispatch system. Oakland will not stop making progress until we full fix 9-1-1 and improve response times significantly."

The mayor also told reporters in September her administration has taken steps to harden the phone systems against future power outages.

But Councilman Gallo says the problem keeps coming back.

VIDEO: OPD risks losing state funding if city's 911 response times do not improve

The Oakland Police Department has been given a year by the state to speed up their 911 emergency response times.

"Even last Friday, I came to my office and the phones weren't working. And my emails weren't there," Gallo said.

This points to concerns over the lack of IT investments.

"It's really important that we make sure that our 911 dispatch system has the best technology available," said Kalb, adding the process is long overdue.

For example, since 2020 the grand jury was told 'this critical software would be rolled out in six months' - but according to the latest report, it hasn't been done nor has any training for personnel.

The delay in implementing this software is impacting the ability of dispatchers to map locations of incidents requiring a response in real-time to direct calls to police.

Kalb says his main concern is about the recruitment and retention of 911 dispatchers.

This comes after a new report showing 1,000 dispatcher applications were not processed by the Human Resources department from April 2022 to April 2023.

"It's inexcusable!" said Kalb. "So now we're trying to catch up."

According to an email obtained by the I-Team, OPD has budgeted for 76 dispatcher-related positions. But to date, there are still 14 vacancies. This comes after the city missed the application deadline to qualify for a grant to fight retail theft in September.

Take a look at more stories and videos by the ABC7 News I-Team.

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