Originally published 5/12/2014 and updated 6/13/2014
GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - A new investigation by KARE 11 News has uncovered evidence that some people who called Minneapolis 911 for help have waited almost twice as long as city officials have admitted before.
When you call 911, seconds can save lives. But too often callers have gotten a recorded message telling them, "Please don't hang up."
Karen Bailey says her mother got that message and waited minutes – not seconds – when she called when a family member was having an apparent heart attack. He died.
That was two-and-a-half months ago. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges rushed to reassure the public, saying the average 911 call is answered in about seven seconds.
"Residents in Minneapolis are getting excellent service from the 911 system," the mayor told us.
But ever since then, we've been asking the city this simple question: When people dial 911, how many of them have to wait 30 seconds or more before someone answers?
Back in March, Minneapolis 911 Director Heather Hunt told us, "We are definitely looking into that."
A few days later, however, we got an email from the city saying, "We don't have a way to extract this data from our system."
So, we wondered about the other 911 call centers in the seven-county metro area. Do they know how many people have to wait 30 seconds or more to get help?
We discovered that in Ramsey County (including St. Paul) and in Hennepin County (everything outside Minneapolis) the answer is: Don't Know. Both counties told us they don't track calls that way.
That's in sharp contrast to Dakota, Anoka, Washington, Scott and Carver counties. All of them do know how many 911 callers waited more than 30 seconds – and for all of them it was a tiny fraction, less than one percent.
In fact Chris Weldon, the man in charge of 911 in Scott County says that tracking 911 call wait times is part of routine quality control. "It's a monthly thing that we do," he said.
When we discovered some counties do track delayed answer times, we decided to go back to Minneapolis and push harder for information – this time under the state's Open Records law. And late last week, we uncovered evidence that the mayor and city officials know a lot more about delayed calls than they've been telling the public.
Records obtained by KARE 11 News contain a list of the longest time people had to wait on hold for 911 to answer during each week from April 2013 through February this year.
The longest wait? 350 seconds. That's almost 6 minutes.
"These are far more than numbers," said council member Andrew Johnson. "These are individuals who are clearly in emergency situations."
Johnson requested the statistics at about the same time the city told us it couldn't answer our questions about delayed calls.
Armed with that data about the longest wait time each week – confidential until now – Johnson did some calculations of his own.
In an email to the mayor and fellow council members he wrote, "The longest wait time … (on average) is approximately 2 minutes and 11 seconds."
"That seems way too long," council member Cam Gordon told us.
But the actual wait time could be even worse. That's because the numbers we got don't include people who got frustrated, hung up, and dialed 911 again.
Gordon said, "I think it's pretty shocking someone would have to wait three or four or five minutes to get a response from 911."
Hodges has said the vast majority of calls are handled quickly and that the city is working hard to improve 911.
We wanted to ask why her administration hasn't been more open about the delays that do exist, but her office said she was tied up in meetings.
In a written statement, the mayor said: "… average response times at Minneapolis 911 are the best they've been in years." But she added there's still "room for improvement."
City officials say the 911 call center is now keeping track of answer times that last longer than a minute and they say next year they'll have an updated 911 computer system that will allow them to answer calls faster.
In light of the new information we discovered about wait times in Minneapolis, we're going back to the two other 911 call centers that told us they weren't counting calls delayed 30 seconds or more. We've filed new, broader information requests with both Hennepin and Ramsey counties. We'll let you know what we uncover.
Meanwhile, there's an important reminder from 911 officials. If you call in and get stuck on hold, STAY ON THE LINE! If you hang up and call again, you'll wind up back at the bottom of the list.