CRANSTON, R.I. (WJAR) — A Rhode Island lawmaker is raising the alarm about a problem the NBC 10 I-Team has been investigating for months: a staffing shortage inside the state’s E-911 Center in Scituate, where every 911 call in the state is initially answered.
Rep. Bob Lancia, a Republican who represents Cranston, said the staffing problems have reached a critical level, forcing telecommunicators to put thousands of 911 calls on hold. He visited the E-911 center in January at the request of employees, who told him they are at the end of their rope.
“They are overworked. They are stressed out. Worst of all, if there was an actual emergency, they are not manned enough to handle it,” Lancia said.
Lancia visited during the evening shift, when there are as few as four telecommunicators working, despite a minimum staffing level of eight in previous years. Employees told him they’re down by at least 10 employees.
"They are seriously understaffed. It's not just at night, which is when I visited, but also during the day,” Lancia said.
NBC 10 has been tracking 911 call stats for more than two years. Numbers the NBC 10 I-Team reviewed from Rhode Island State Police, who oversees the state’s E-911 system, show 20,833 calls were put on hold during 2017, with some callers waiting up to two minutes 47 seconds for someone to come back on the line.
“It is outrageous. It should take 10 seconds or less. You have consistent figures where it's been over that 10 second time,” Lancia said. “We don't know many calls have been dropped. We don't know how many people never got through and hung up."
The standard from the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, is to answer 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds, and 95 percent of all calls within 20 seconds. State Police said a computer system being used by E-911 since mid-2017 can’t track that specific statistic.
Rhode Island collects more than $15 million in 911 fees from cell phones and landline bills each year. But only about $5 million of those fees make it to the E-911 center -- the approximately $10 million remaining is diverted to the state’s general fund.
"I think every Rhode Islander would be outraged to know that the money that they're paying each month, that's being taken and put on their bill, is being used for other purposes,” Lancia said.
The Cranston state representative previously introduced legislation to return the excess 911 fees to taxpayers. But in light of what he saw at the E-911 center, Lancia said he’s introduced an updated bill, calling for the 911 money to be restricted to public safety, and a new bill aimed at solving the staffing shortage.
“This has got to stop,” he said.
The NBC 10 I-Team will have a full investigation into the problem Thursday starting at 5, including the story of a local woman placed on hold after her car was totaled in the crash. With a renewed federal push to stop states from diverting 911 money, the NBC 10 I-Team is asking state leaders if they plan to make changes.