I-TEAM finds thousands of local 911 calls going unanswered

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CLEVELAND (WJW) — The FOX 8 I-TEAM has found that 911 calls are going unanswered in Cleveland. Records show it happens sometimes with more than a thousand calls a month.

When you call 911, you expect an answer immediately. But, the I-TEAM discovered, in Cleveland, hundreds, even thousands of calls a month are not answered right away, or not picked up at all.

More than a dozen times in recent years, we’ve reported on your neighbors getting no answer in desperate moments.

So, we investigated 8 recent months of Cleveland 911 calls listed as “abandoned.” Calls get classified as abandoned when people dial 911 and hang up before dispatch answers. Callers may decide to, perhaps, try back later or handle an emergency themselves.

Records show more there were more than 2,100 abandoned last March, more than 860 last August, and over 1,600 in December. City records also show that on July 4 alone more than 200 calls went unanswered.

The number of abandoned calls generally amounts for only a small fraction of what comes into Cleveland 911. The City’s dispatch gets 30,000 – 40,000 calls a month, sometimes more.

Records show, for the months we checked, abandoned calls accounted for 1 to 5 percent. However, on July 4, 2020, the number topped ten percent.

Trishelle Robinson, a young mother, told the I-TEAM, she’s called Cleveland 911 and been frustrated more than once getting no answer. She said, it’s happened to her, “maybe 3, 4 times…”

“That three seconds or two minutes I’m waiting can be the difference between life and death. They don’t know what’s going on. Maybe I can’t afford to wait,” said Robinson.

The I-TEAM  repeatedly asked Cleveland Police to answer questions about this on camera.  Yet, the department said no one is doing interviews during the COVID-19 outbreak, not even by remote hook up.

Instead a spokesperson only issued a statement.

Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia wrote, in part,

“Abandoned calls occur due to a variety of reasons…pocket calls, kids playing on the phone, duplicate accidental calls. Call takers call all of the abandoned callers back immediately.”

But, privately, dispatchers tell us and union leaders also have said, the dispatchers are often too busy to call people back. Or, they can’t do it right away.

Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association President Jeff Follmer said, calls can also go unanswered and lead to hang-ups when a lot of people call to report the same thing. For instance, a big fire or crash.

The Union also says it can happen when the dispatch center is short-staffed without enough people to answer all of the calls.

The I-TEAM has exposed short-staffing in Cleveland dispatch as a chronic problem dating back to 2015. Records show, even now, the city is short.

The police dispatch has 94 positions budgeted with 14 openings. EMS dispatch has 38 positions budgeted with 6 openings. Both are about 15 percent.

Jeff Follmer said, “We gotta keep up with our staffing levels up there. I don’t think we’ve ever kept up with the needs up there. It’s a revolving door up there.”

From here, the I-TEAM will be watching to see if anything changes.

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