DeKalb County

The next time you call 911 in this metro county you may hear an automated voice – not a human

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — When you call 911 for help, you expect someone to pick up the line. But that’s not what always happens.

Instead, you might get put on hold with a recording when seconds count.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Sophia Choi started digging into the issue after getting complaints from DeKalb County residents.

Dekalb County 911 said it can get up to 180 calls for help in an hour -- too many for the 12 operators on the floor to handle without putting some on hold.

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Soon, every time you call DeKalb 911, the first voice you hear won’t be an operator.

Family members of Pamela Parks, 62, called 911 after she started seizing on Feb. 18.

“She’s doing it again, Junior! Oh my God, please hurry up and answer the phone!” the family member is heard saying on her call to 911.

The 911 system starts recording the minute the call is connected even if you get a recording.

What they heard on the other end of the phone…

“You have reached DeKalb County Emergency 911, please don’t hang up.”

You can hear the frustration, as family members realize they’re getting a recording.

“Why you all put me on hold like this,” the family member says during the call. “Somebody’s gotta help me, this is some bulls***.”

[READ: ‘Help is on the way.’ But it was too late – why neighbors say metro 911 system is taking too long]

“You’re calling 911, nobody’s helping you though. So nobody’s telling you to do CPR. Nobody’s telling you to do anything that’s life-saving. They’re just telling you to hold, somebody is going to pick up,” said Shawnya Surry, Parks’ daughter.

The family waited on the line for two minutes re-hearing the recording several times.

“This is crazy. This is crazy man! They’ve got to get better,” a family member said on the 911 call.

“It just kept looping, looping, looping,” family member Obie “Junior” Corley said.

So they hung up and tried again, re-dialing 911. Big mistake.

“Never hang up the phone, because if you hang up, you get put to the back of the queue if you call back,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said.

Channel 2 Action News obtained a computer-aided dispatch report through an open records request that showed the family called more than a dozen times in a matter of minutes.

Paramedics finally arrived at 6:06 p.m., more than 20 minutes after the first call to 911 at 5:44 p.m.

“I could literally be sitting here talking to you and telling you my mom’s gone because 911 didn’t pick up,” Surry said.

The industry standard for 911 centers is to answer calls within 20 seconds. DeKalb County often misses that mark.

The new 911 director told Choi that with so many unnecessary calls to 911 -- more than 50% of them -- operators like Jennie Howell do the best they can to weed through them.


“Even if it’s a little bit of a wait time, it’s frustrating and scary, but we’ll get to you quicker if you stay on the line,” Howell said.

To improve response times, DeKalb County’s 911 center is getting a $5 million upgrade.

The county used the money to hire 23 new operators at premium pay and install new technology, including a new artificial intelligence system.

So soon, the first sound you will hear when calling 911 is a computer-generated voice.

“It will allow that system, which will go through and triage calls as well, process calls before it even gets an operator. So, it’s kind of like when you call a business, and they say press one for billing. And then when you get to billing, it’ll ask you different questions, then route you to the correct person,” 911 director Carina Swain said.

DeKalb County not only handles emergency calls from unincorporated areas, but also most of the cities within the county, and even Stone Mountain Park.

The county handles more than 740,000 calls a year with only 12 operators on the floor at any given time.

Compare that to other 911 systems, like Chatt Comm, which only handles four metro Atlanta cities—Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Johns Creek, and Sandy Springs.

Chatt Comm also uses 12 operators, each shift, but handles fewer than half the number of calls, compared to DeKalb -- about 355,000 a year.

DeKalb County said it plans to hire more operators if needed, but the county CEO said technology will be key to faster response times.

“You can’t hire your way out of this particular challenge,” Thurmond said. “It’s unfortunate that we were forced to maintain a system that does not support operational efficiency, but that’s the past, and the future is going to be much different.”

Park’s family said without changes, DeKalb’s 911 system could cost lives instead of saving them.

“I kind of lost my mom,” Surry said. “If she has another seizure and I run into that experience, it’s going to be a problem for DeKalb County.”

Choi found that it’s not just DeKalb County. A lot of metro 911 centers use recordings until an operator can get to you.

It’s human instinct during an emergency to hang up and call back when you get a recording. But officials say don’t do that, don’t hang up. That just puts you at the back of the line—causing an even bigger delay, when seconds really do matter.

This month, DeKalb is launching a social media campaign and hiring a public education specialist to get the word out.