New law aims to curb hold times for calling 911 in KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A proposed new law could help Kansas City’s ongoing 911 call delays. The city’s been working for a couple years now to improve hold times, which now average about 23 seconds.

Heather Horn is a busy mom of two.

Last summer, a nasty storm hit her home, knocking out trees in the neighborhood. At first, she called the local non-emergency number. But a while later, when power lines started sparking, she called 911.

“We were on hold for 35 minutes with 911 and by that time the fire finally put itself out. So we hung up,” said Horn.

She knew a lot of people were dealing with storm damage, so she was willing to forgive and forget the long hold time.

But this weekend, she experienced a bit of déjà vu. Her husband was burning some brush and debris in the family’s backyard fire pit and a small piece of paper got away.

“I didn’t know what to think at first, looked out back and of course flames across whole back yard. I called 911 because I thought this was going to get to our house, to our neighbor’s house. If it catches on trees, the fire could take over neighborhood,” said Horn.

She was on hold nearly three minutes, when panic set in. She hung up and grabbed buckets and a hose, putting out the fire before she could get a hold of an emergency crew to come help.

“It was absolutely terrifying, and I was really concerned afterward that we really didn’t have the help I thought we could count on,” said Horn.

Kansas City’s police chief asked for 21 new dispatch positions to help alleviate long wait times some 911 callers experience. The current budget calls for just eight new dispatchers. The police department, which oversees local 911, declined an interview, citing the “ongoing budget negotiations”.

“I equate it to the supermarket checkout where you may have two checkout lanes open and 50 people in line. There’s going to be a wait. So determining what that number is, is ultimately up to the Kansas City Police Department and the city on how they want to fund that,” said Eric Winebrenner, MidAmerica Regional Council public safety program director.

But there is some encouraging news at the state level. Both the House and Senate are proposing measures that would allow cities and counties to put forward ballot measures, asking to charge 911 fees to cell phone lines. Currently state law only allows those fees on land lines, but 70 percent of 911 calls today come from cell phones.

That extra revenue could help local communities upgrade equipment and adequately staff dispatch centers.

That House bill is set for debate on the floor in Jefferson City this week.

As for the city, a series of public budget hearings are happening over the coming weeks, you can also submit feedback online.