Virginia Beach, Va. - From the looks of little Burke McKenzie's smile, you wouldn't know that he and his mom were in a small fender bender in the Beach last week.
They were fine, but mom called 911, just as many are trained to do in an emergency.
“I called 911 and I expected to right away get a dispatcher. And instead, I just heard, ‘Your emergency's important. All dispatchers are busy,’ You know, hold the line,” says Mackenzie McKenzie.
More than a minute went by before she heard, “911 what's your emergency."
Twenty minutes passed and no police arrived so she called again.
“When I called back, I got the same answer. You know, your emergency's important but everybody's busy hold on,” says McKenzie.
Frustrated, she called NewsChannel 3 to get to the bottom of the hold up.
“You think that 911's gonna be there, and when you don't get somebody, it's horrifying,” says McKenzie.
“We regret that anyone has to be in the queue, what the public would consider on hold, when they dial 911,” says Lori Stiles, the Virginia Beach 911 Operations Manager. She admits the department is understaffed by 21 dispatchers.
Stiles says their call center routing technology could have had something to do with it, too.
"We're always looking at the call queue, always looking at ways that we can better manage the calls that are coming into the center," says Stiles.
The way the 911 call center, and several others are set up, calls from landline phones make it into dispatchers first.
Calls from cell phones fall in line after.
Stiles says they're hoping to have technology by the end of this year that will allow them to get to all calls faster.
"If we have a brush fire that's reported in one area, once we have that, then those secondary calls in regards to that incident while still an emergency, would be focused with a certain group of call takers or call taker," says Stiles explaining the new technology.
The other calls from landlines and cell phones would be routed to other available dispatchers.
NewsChannel 3’s Jessica Larche asked Stiles how they are able to handle the call volume.
“Right now, we do adjustments. We also do overtime. Our staff works overtime to fill some of those gaps,” says Stiles. “That is one of the things we are focusing on, getting more call takers in these seats.”
Stiles says high turnover and finding passionate dispatchers are to blame for the vacancies. Funding for salaries, she says, is not.
“Are you all concerned that someone will die waiting for 911 to answer the phone?” asked Jessica Larche.
“That is certainly a situation that we would not want the public to be in,” says Stiles.
But it's a situation Mackenzie fears is inevitable if things don't change.
“It just seems totally unacceptable. What would happen if it was one of those situations where it's an emergency and every second counts?” asked McKenzie.