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Police, dispatchers struggle to keep up with more calls in Portland

By WILLIAM MAETZOLD

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    PORTLAND, Oregon (KPTV) — The rise in violence and crime in Portland over the last two years has not just taken a toll on the public. It’s been challenging for the city’s first responders to keep up with.

The recent spike in crime has meant harder days on the job for Bureau of Emergency Communications dispatcher Bridget Rhodes.

“The roller coaster ride of emotions and stress is definitely there,” she said. “We do 10 hour shifts at a minimum, up to 14 hours if we stay late for overtime. That’s 10 to 14 hours of non-stop.”

The city of Portland dealt with record numbers of violent crimes in 2021. The Portland Police Bureau said the city had 90 homicides, its most ever.

There was a 22% jump in call load for the city’s dispatch center in 2021 from the year before. In Dec. 2021, just 38% of 911 calls were answered within 20 seconds. The national standard is 95% of calls.

“We’re constantly filtering those,” Rhodes said. “Most of them get filtered on the 911 line first. We just try to sort through those as best as we can.”

Along with emergency dispatchers, PPB is also facing an increased call load.

Portland Police Association president Aaron Schmautz said this makes it difficult for officers to do their job the proper way.

“It’s just a compounding effort of us wanting to make sure we’re providing good service and the community that feels like they need more help,” he said.

With the increase in homicides in Portland comes a larger officer response. That means there aren’t many resources left for the rest of the 911 calls.

“It’s an incredible impact on staffing,” Schmautz said. “While those things are going on you have other emergencies going on. You have people who need help.”

Both agencies are now focused on hiring to alleviate some of the stress of the current employees.

Schmautz said he supports the city council’s commitment to hiring 300 more officers – uniformed and support specialists – from the fall budget surplus. But he said the conversation about funding for public safety needs to continue.

“When you make reactionary decisions and you have staffing cuts, and you’ve seen this around the country, it has a huge and outsize impact on our ability to provide public safety,” he said. “Because it’s really hard to rebound from those decisions.”

Rhodes said now is also a great time to think about becoming a dispatcher. She said helping someone in a scary or even life-threatening situation comes with a rewarding feeling.

“If you’re looking to help people and you don’t necessarily want to be on the streets,” Rhodes said. “It is a good industry to get into.”

Dispatchers said there are some reminders that can help get a faster response to someone who is in an emergency. They said for lower-level crimes like stolen cars and burglaries, use the non-emergency number. The wait time can be long, but your call will be answered eventually. They also said don’t hang up if you’re on hold for 911 and call back later.

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