CBS 58 Investigation Uncovers Significant Delays on Wireless Calls in Waukesha

When you call 9-1-1 during an emergency, you expect a rapid response. 

But in the City of Waukesha, you better be prepared to wait if you're calling from a cell phone. 

A CBS-58 investigation has uncovered a concerning trend involving wireless 9-1-1 calls made within the city. 

      "Every wireless call that's made through 9-1-1 is delayed, up to 45 seconds," says Alderwoman Kathleen Cummings.  "In the middle of an emergency, 45 seconds can be a lifetime."

Here's why the issue exists: The city and county both use separate dispatch centers, but the county handles all wireless calls. That means wireless 911 calls made within the city, first go to the county, before being "transferred" back to the city. Records show the average delay on those transfers is 15-45 seconds. 

      "The only way the 45 seconds goes away, is if we join county dispatch," says Cummings.

Those transfers happened 10,004 times last year, according to county communications. 

That means Waukesha residents wasted over 3 days of time last year, waiting to be transferred. 

      "About 85% of our call volume is wireless," says County Emergency Preparedness Director Gary Bell.

Bell's staff is responsible for handling those calls, and then making the transfer back to the city. On numerous 9-1-1 calls obtained by CBS-58, callers are asked to repeat the same information again once they reach city dispatch. 

      "What that communicator on the other end of the phone has to do, is dependent upon their local policy," says Bell. "And that may require them to ask to again, repeat that information." 

      "The process can always be improved," says Bell. "And the easiest way to do that, is under one roof."

That would involve combining the city and county dispatch centers, a move that would save the city nearly $600,000 a year. 

But at a September 20th council meeting, alderman voted 11-2, against exploring a merger.

      "We heard the report, the decision was made, and then it was done," says Cummings. "The public never really weighed in. The public didn't know it was going to happen." 

That report was a $60,000 study paid for by the city to investigate the feasibility of merging with the county. It cited numerous concerns with the current situation, but in the end, recommended sticking with the current set-up. The study provided three main reasons; cost to the county to pick up the additional calls, staffing concerns involving the county hiring enough dispatchers to field those extra calls, and a reduced level of control for Waukesha Police. 

Chief Russell Jack declined an interview, instead sending us the following statement: 

"In the interest of public safety, we have always been committed to providing the best level of service to our citizens. We are dedicated to lessening the amount of time it takes from the time of the 9-1-1 call to the time the first responder is on the scene committed to the emergency issue. We look forward to working collaboratively with other Municipalities, Waukesha County, and the State to give our communities the best possible service." 

We asked Chief Jack to elaborate on what specifically is being done to address the issue. He declined to comment. 

Council president Aaron Perry, who voted against the merger, also declined to speak on his council's behalf. 

      "I have trouble grasping the fact that we would continue having a 45-second delay, when we have the option to remove it," says Cummings. 

Gary Bell says his county department is ready and willing to take on the additional calls, if the city ever changes it's mind. 

      "I think what they're doing is fine. Do I think I can provide that service in Waukesha County? You betcha we certainly can." 

As it stands now, your only option to reach city dispatch directly from a cell phone is to dial a 10-digit number. Bell says it's still safer to call 9-1-1 and deal with the transfer delay. 

He recommends quickly identifying your location, phone number, and type of emergency. Be prepared to repeat that same information to city dispatch once the transfer occurs. 

The issue could be eliminated by 2020, when location services improve to the point where dispatchers can determine a caller's exact location without having to ask. 

Alderwoman Cummings is hoping the issue is resolved before then. 

      "I believe it will, and it must. It's a question of when. But while we're waiting, the 45 seconds continues to tick off." 

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