Why 911 calls ring and ring: Inside the crisis at Philly police dispatch

A worker shortage means pressure is high and burnout is rampant.

An ambulance at Kensington and Lehigh leaves on a dispatch call

An ambulance at Kensington and Lehigh leaves on a dispatch call

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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There’s a crisis escalating inside the dispatch room on the second floor of Philly police headquarters — and residents are beginning to doubt they can count on the city’s emergency response.

When three gunshots ripped through her West Philly block on a quiet summer night in early July, Nyisha Chapman dove inside her house and dialed 911.

As she tried to catch her breath, she listened to what felt like an endless ring.

30 seconds.

45 seconds.

No answer.

She hung up and called back — which helped not at all, since it returned her to the end of the queue. So again, she waited. After another 30 seconds, someone picked up, and she reported what would end up being a fatal shooting.

A few weeks later in Queen Village, resident Debbie Drubin returned from a dog walk and tried to report a child she’d spotted in an open doorway, crying hysterically, parents nowhere to be seen.

She dialed 911, and waited.

Two minutes.

Three minutes.

No answer.

A week after that, shortly before midnight, Logan Square resident Mary Sisto called 911 after she saw three young girls begin screaming as a group of boys on bicycles harassed them. She waited. And waited. She hung up. She called again. She never got through.

“If somebody were being hurt and needed help right away, that’s kind of scary,” Sisto said.

People across the city have been experiencing similar fears and frustrations in recent months. While many calls are not life-threatening, and sometimes better handled by 311 than police, others are for legitimate crises where every second counts. Emergency call volume has risen slightly in recent years — from 2.3 million annually in 2018 to over 2.4 million last year. But that’s not the sole source of the delays.

The radio room of the Philadelphia Police Department, inside the headquarters at 8th and Race streets, faces near-daily staff shortages.

Absences are driven by burnout, COVID-fuelled illness, and sky-high turnover, according to nearly a dozen current and former dispatchers who spoke with Billy Penn, as well as other officials with knowledge of the situation.

Until recently, supervisors were mandating overtime for dispatchers seven days a week, department officials confirmed.

“A lot of people are burnt out,” said Darnell Davis, union representative for Local 1637 of District Council 33, which represents civilian communications in the police department. “They’re the first responders, and they’re getting a lot [of pressure] from management to come to work and work through the COVID, and they have.”

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has vowed to ramp up recruitment efforts. Davis said the department has taken laudable steps to address grievances following an emotional briefing with City Council last year, where dispatchers described unsafe working conditions, depleted morale and a culture of retaliation for those who complain.

Offering salaries between $39,000 and $48,000, the PPD currently employs roughly 250 dispatchers spread across three, round-the-clock radio shifts. The newly passed city budget authorizes an additional 75 positions, bringing the maximum number of dispatchers to 350. But more than 60 staffers have left police radio since the pandemic began in March 2020 — a full quarter of the current workforce. Of those, nearly half were new recruits.

Dispatchers, who spoke with Billy Penn on condition of anonymity as they’re not authorized to talk to the press, said the worker shortage and near-daily callouts have created a chaotic situation.

The department declined to make Capt. Edward Appleton, the top supervisor in police radio, available for an interview.

Police at Germantown and Allegheny Avenues on August 23, 2021
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

While the call room should ideally have 20 people on the phone lines per shift, some assignment sheets reviewed by Billy Penn show only a handful, even on the busiest 3 to 11 p.m. shift and the following overnight shift.

“Some nights, we’re coming in and there’s one call taker assigned,” one dispatcher said. “The last two months, at least once a week, on the busiest shift, they had one call taker.”

The PPD denied this claim. But Billy Penn confirmed several evenings in July and August where the radio room was understaffed by nearly a dozen workers on several shifts. It’s a regular scramble for supervisors when this occurs, as they must transfer administrative workers and dispatchers to help answer the phones when they ring off the hook.

Four dispatchers independently described recent backups with as many as 27 calls waiting to be answered in the queue — and wait times as long as 3 minutes. The police department said about 3,900 calls placed this year rang for over two minutes, which accounts for 0.2% of total volume.

“Our commitment is always to answer all 911 calls in under 10 seconds,” ​PPD Corporal Jasmine Reilly said in a statement. “We adjust assignments in an attempt to meet that goal. Supervisors reassign personnel from the tape room, console partners etc. to ensure that the most calls possible will be answered in the shortest space of time.”

It’s difficult to know how often unanswered calls or mishandled dispatches lead to tragedy. But many dispatchers remember the name Eddie Polec.

In 1994, a group of suburban teens drove into Northeast Philadelphia and beat 16-year-old Polec to death with baseball bats. Police didn’t intervene until 40 minutes after the first calls came in. The brutal, senseless murder made national news, and local dispatchers ultimately took the fall. Several people were fired, and the department overhauled its training, instituting some practices that are still in use today.

Police brass are shunting some blame for current problems in the call center onto a recently added process: the mental health assessment script dispatchers were asked to begin using in the wake of Walter Wallace Jr.’s killing by police last year.

“Their jobs have become more challenging due to the addition of requirements for mental health questionnaires being filled out when someone contacts 911 which is adding to the increased time,” Lt. Patrick Quinn wrote in an email to residents who complained about call delays, obtained by Billy Penn.

Dispatchers acknowledged concerns with the mental health script, which aggravates some residents in the throes of an emergency and can cause delays.

Chaos in a short-staffed radio room

Burnout and shortages among city employees are not unique to police radio. The situation there echoes what Philadelphia sanitation workers have reported throughout the pandemic. While trash delays are frustrating and can even pose a health threat, the stakes are higher on a dispatch line, where small mistakes can carry immediate and grave consequences.

Philly’s 911 call center has a two-part system. Call takers answer the ringing phones in one room, and route callers to the appropriate dispatch “band” in the next room over. Bands cover specific sections of the city, or specific issues like traffic.

Ideally, each band has two dispatchers — one talking with officers on the ground, the other taking notes and handling related communications. Foot chase on the train tracks? One coordinates police response while the other calls CSX or Amtrak.

But when volume spikes, supervisors will often move staff from bands and redeploy them to help pick up the phones. That may help fight the ringing, but dispatchers say it can leave them struggling to handle high-stake calls all by themselves.

The department said managers fill the gaps as needed.

Dispatchers and other personnel are returned to their original shift assignments once call volume slows down, and “personnel are also reassigned if an event on a radio band mandates it,” said PPD spokesperson Corporal Reilley.

The worker shortage means people are often taking more calls per shift, sometimes with few or no breaks. “I just took 200 calls in an 8-hour shift,” said one dispatcher who’s been on the job for several years. “When I used to work that shift when I first started, I took maybe 80 calls, tops.”

Answering 911 emergencies also carries an emotional tax.

There’s less breathing room for that when short staffed. “If we take a break after a difficult call, [supervisors] tell us we need to go take calls because it’s over-ringing,” the dispatcher said.

Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 7th and Race streets

Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 7th and Race streets

AP Photo / Matt Rourke

Recruiting people into a ‘vicious cycle’ of burnout

Radio room personnel also described a lack of ongoing training and constantly shifting mandates from supervisors. Mandatory overtime just compounds the stress.

On paper, it’s a tool that allows the department to force emergency personnel to work during catastrophes like the 2015 Amtrak derailment or events like 2020 social justice protests.

But supervisors have been utilizing mandatory overtime on a daily basis this year. Dispatchers said the mandate notice sometimes arrives in the last hour of their shift, requiring them to stay on for several more hours and scrambling to rearrange plans or deal with childcare at home.

The department said it recently rolled back mandatory OT to apply only to weekends and other shifts where there are too many employee calls outs.

Problem is, callouts are a near-daily occurrence.

“We’re all part of the problem, because we’re calling out because we don’t want to go in there and deal with it,” said one dispatcher. “People talk about taking mental health days, well guess what? That’s what we’re doing.”

Add in sick days, COVID or otherwise, and you get near-daily shortages.

“Everything that’s going on is a vicious, vicious cycle,” said another dispatcher. “We have less people working here. Now, those people are more stressed out because they’re dealing with higher calls than they need to. Now, you’re rushing through that queue because you’re rushing through those calls — I might not ask you all those questions I’m supposed to.”

New recruits are coming. Davis, the union rep, remains hopeful the department can fill the 100 vacant posts within a year’s time. With intensive tests and screenings, it takes several months to graduate a new class. Only a small fraction of applicants make it to the final round.

The department said 29 recruits have left the job since the beginning of 2020. Most new hires stick with it, Davis said. “To my knowledge, 90% or more of the people who go through the training stay on the job.”

The DC33 union is currently negotiating a new contract with salary increases. Per Davis, the city recently agreed to a one-step bump in pay for radio workers and established a new “senior dispatcher” position instead of only allowing uniformed officers to hold middle manager roles in the radio room.

Residents who’ve been frustrated with the delays say they understand the plight of the workers, but that doesn’t solve the problem.

“I understand understaffing,” Sisto, the Logan Square resident who struggled to get through to 911 last week, “but this really needs to be a priority. The safety of the people you represent comes first.”

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