DeKalb Put Half of 911 Callers On Hold

County’s service performed the worst among metro agencies in an AJC analysis of 911 answer times.

About half of those who called 911 in DeKalb County in 2023 were put on hold, the worst hold rate of any agency surveyed in the metro area, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

The AJC examined data representing millions of 911 calls across Atlanta and the metro counties and found that an alarmingly high number of callers were left waiting for an operator to answer. At DeKalb County E-911, just 54% of calls to 911 were answered within 20 seconds last year. The industry standard is that 95% of calls should be answered by the 20-second mark.

DeKalb Commissioner Ted Terry met with the AJC to review data obtained through a records request, and he said it was the first time he had seen answer time data for the E-911 center. Terry said in his three years on the Employee Relations and Public Safety committee he was told answer times were improving.

“We were told everything’s going great. Response times are better, and staffing is doing good,” Terry said.

In 2020, everything was great, at least according to the report the county provided to the AJC. But in 2021, the percentage of people on hold more than 20 seconds shot up and got worse each year since. During the pandemic, 911 centers nationwide struggled to hire and retain staff, and DeKalb’s center was no exception. DeKalb County E-911 handles more than half a million 911 calls a year, second only to Atlanta in terms of call volume.

Out of the 21 agencies the AJC reviewed, not only did DeKalb County E-911 have the largest share of callers waiting on hold, but its officials also had the most trouble complying with laws that require public access to government records. Initially, a DeKalb spokesperson said the county did not have records that compared the county’s answer times to the industry standard.


This story is part of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into 911 hold times. For more:

Metro Atlanta 911 callers are often left waiting


On Tuesday, April 2, 2024, supervisors address a group of trainees who will transition to the floor to answer 911 calls at the DeKalb County E-911 communications center. (Miguel Martinez /[email protected])

After a month of back-and-forth with reporters, DeKalb officials provided documents that revealed about half of calls to the E-911 center took longer than 20 seconds to answer.

When the AJC showed Terry its findings, he requested an update on the E-911 center at a committee meeting in mid-March. County officials said they needed until early April before briefing the county commissioners.

”Nobody is infallible, but we need to be transparent,” Terry said. “I’m going to stay on this issue.”

In light of the problems, Terry said he plans to ask for quarterly updates about the E-911 center’s performance.

DeKalb’s slow answer times can have grave consequences.

In July 2021, Angela Monroe-Wood was hosting a barbecue in her Clarkston backyard when, without warning, 10 to 15 gunshots rang out. Someone shot her neighbor.

The 31-year-old dialed 911, as did several other partygoers. They all got the same message: the automated voice instructing them to wait for the next available operator. She stayed on the line for several minutes before a live human voice answered the call.

“Everybody is trying to get ahold of police, and everyone is on hold. So I’m just the first one to get through,” she told the operator, according to 911 audio, later pleading: “Can you send somebody as soon as possible?”

In July 2021, Angela Monroe-Wood heard nearby gunshots while she hosted a barbeque in her backyard. She and several partygoers called DeKalb 911 and they all got the same automated message instructing them to wait for the next available operator.

“Those precious minutes really could be the difference between living and dying,” she said.

In late March, WSB-TV reported that a Lithonia family’s house caught fire, and it took so long to get ahold of 911 that they flagged down a FedEx driver to go get help at the nearest fire station.

Not all of the county is covered by DeKalb County E-911. Decatur and Doraville have their own call centers, which both answered the vast majority of their calls within 20 seconds. Brookhaven and Dunwoody contract out their emergency communications services to a private company that performs better than national best practices, according to their data.

However, county officials say the number of cities in DeKalb with their own police and fire services and EMS complicate efforts to address the county center’s answer times. About 1 in 4 calls in DeKalb go through two 911 centers to dispatch emergency services, according to data provided by the county.

“It is a complex system, one that not many agencies, if any at all, have to deal with when it comes to workload and attempting to make sure there’s a proper response,” DeKalb’s fire chief Darnell Fullum said.

LISTEN: Angela Monroe-Wood gets through to 911
Angela Monroe-Wood: 'Everybody's on hold'

Like 911 centers around the country, DeKalb County E-911 has struggled with hiring and retention since the pandemic.

Despite salary increases and retention bonuses, staff work overtime to answer calls. Since 2022, the county has allocated millions of dollars to fund triple-overtime at the 911 center.

The county’s hiring efforts are starting to pay off. Five call-takers began on-the-job training in late March and an additional 18 began training at the start of April.

The center also has new leadership. Carina Swain was hired as the director for DeKalb County E-911 in December, after leaving her position as an operations manager for Atlanta E-911.

Swain told the AJC she was not aware of the center’s hold time metrics before taking the job, and she described the situation as alarming.

In her first few months on the job, she made plans to upgrade the center’s phone system and adjusted the number of people assigned to busy shifts.

Swain hopes that by this time next year the center will be answering 80% of calls within 20 seconds — an improvement, but short of the national standard.

“We’re definitely trying to get to that standard as fast as we can,” Swain told the AJC. “I’m realistic with it, but I have great faith in my team and everything that we’re doing.”

For residents who rely on the DeKalb County E-911 line for help, the cracks in the system are obvious.

Donna Powell, a DeKalb County resident with diabetes, calls 911 at times when her blood sugar levels dip dangerously low. (Jason Getz / [email protected])

Donna Powell, 69, has Type 2 diabetes. Her blood sugar levels sometimes dip to dangerously low levels. The situation is made more precarious by the fact that Powell lives alone in her DeKalb County apartment.

Her blood sugar levels are continuously monitored by a machine, and she packs her kitchen with sugary snacks such as Skittles or gummy candy. When Powell’s sugar levels plunge, her monitor beeps, so she consumes sweets to raise her blood sugar to safer levels.

Sometimes that doesn’t work, and Powell or a representative of the company that monitors her glucose levels must call 911.

During those times of crisis, Powell tells herself to keep her eyes open, but she worries about what could happen if she can’t get help.

“I just pray that it will go back up,” she said of her blood sugar levels.

On one occasion, Powell said her glucose monitoring company called her as her blood sugar levels dropped dramatically. She said a company representative called 911, with Powell still on the line, and was placed on hold.

By the time first responders arrived at Powell’s house she was unconscious. If dangerously low blood sugar levels are left untreated, it can lead to a seizure, a coma or death.

“It makes me wonder: How many people have actually died? Or had bad, bad results because they couldn’t get ahold of 911?” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to remove a photo from the DeKalb County E-911 center. A caption with the photo had misidentified the employee pictured in the photo.