One in five calls to Springs police hangs up before being answered, data show.

The Colorado Springs Police Department is short a quarter of the number needed in its call center, which is having a big impact on how soon calls get answered. In turn, that slows CSPD’s response to people who are in grave danger and need help.

“We are currently down 23 positions in the Communication’s Center which is approximately 25% of their staff. We currently have 12 vacant ERT (call takers) positions and 11 Public Safety Dispatcher positions,” Police Chief Vince Niski said in an email to a citizen who complained to City Council, obtained by the Indy. “This has a direct impact on our ability to answer calls in a timely manner.” 

In fact, emergency call data show that in October, the most recent available, the average answer time for 911 calls for CSPD was 25.3 seconds, four times longer than the next slowest response among law enforcement in El Paso and Teller counties (including military bases), which was 6.1 seconds charted by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

The data also show that nearly one in five of the 24,840 calls received during October hung up before the call was answered. That can happen for a number of reasons, including that people get tired of waiting for an answer.

In January 2021,  CSPD’s average answer time to 911 calls was 16 seconds, and 17 percent of the 19,507 calls hung up before being answered. Data for timeliness of answering calls to CSPD’s main number weren’t immediately available.

The original complaint came from Andrea Archer, who called CSPD’s main number, not 911, in mid-November when a traffic signal on Cheyenne Road and Cascade Avenue remained red for 10 minutes, causing traffic to back up to Tejon Street.

“People were honking their horns to make traffic move,” Archer wrote to Council on Nov. 11. “But we couldn’t go anywhere because the light was red.

“I spent 20 minutes on hold with 719-444-7000 and I finally hung up. I DO NOT understand why this is happening. As a concerned citizen, I was attempting to make our city a better place. I guess the city does not want to hear from me or anyone else for that matter,” she wrote.

She later told the Indy by phone, “People’s lives are on the line, literally.”

In his Nov. 15 response, Niski wrote, “I am embarrassed to say our answer times are not what we would like them to be both on the non-emergency lines as well as the 911 lines.”

He also noted the department, like other agencies and businesses, is having trouble hiring qualified people, and when people are hired, they discover they’re “dealing with people in dire need of police and/or fire assistance” and “they leave due to the pressure of the job.” 

“We are doing continuous hiring to try and fill the vacant positions but cannot get that done fast enough,” he wrote.

Archer then countered that “it makes my heart sick to learn that citizens of our city are not able to receive the care they deserve, in a timely manner, because of serious lag time in answering the 911 calls.”

When Niski advised her CSPD plans “to modify our recruiting efforts later this year and into 2022,” City Councilor Bill Murray called that timeline “totally unacceptable” in an email to Council.

Murray says short staffing of not only call-takers but sworn officers arise from a leadership lapse and that “[s]omeone was sleeping at the wheel.” He also notes Council and Mayor John Suthers have made sure CSPD is adequately funded, so money has not been a barrier.

Niski responded to Murray with data showing 911 staffing shortages span the nation and the state. Vacancy rates in the Denver metro area range from 15 percent to 42 percent, according to a Denver Post article he cited, and Florida’s Tampa Bay News reported, also in June, that studies show dispatch departments reported turnover rates of up to 20 percent.

The city hired Missouri-based consultant Fitch & Associates to analyze the call center; it reported in February that call-taking was substandard and inefficient, and recommended several changes in how calls are handled.

Niski also advised Murray that, “If you took the time to educate yourself about the issues surrounding our staffing shortage ... you would see this isn’t a leadership issue.” 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.