PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. - A car theft victim in Pierce County is raising questions why 911 dispatchers did not immediately answer his emergency calls over the weekend.
Derek, a resident in Pierce County, said he was waiting for someone to pick up the phone while watching thieves steal his classic car from his driveway early Saturday morning.
"By the time we got to the front window and our cameras went off, we had just seen the people push the car out from around the driveway by our mailbox. At the time, we both called 911. I wasn’t getting through, my wife wasn’t getting through," said Derek. "We finally got through and at that point I went to my backyard and could hear them down the road."
South Sound 911 confirmed Derek called 911 Saturday at 4:23 a.m. and hung up after the phone continued ringing. Officials said his wife called at 4:25 a.m., and at 4:27 a.m., dispatchers broadcast the car theft on the radio to all responding units in Pierce County. South Sound 911 could not confirm the amount of time Derek’s wife waited on the phone before a dispatcher answered her call.
Derek, the owner of a 1979 Malibu, filed an incident report with Pierce County Sheriff’s Office after his classic car was stolen from his driveway the morning of September 16, 2023.
"That’s a lot of time to go without getting through to 911 and police on the way. That was the frustrating part. At the end of the day, that’s where it was really concerning to me," said Derek. "It’s just an auto theft, but if I would have had a medical emergency or the wife or my kids."
Pierce County Sheriff’s Department was the responding agency, showing up to Derek’s home several hours after the car theft occurred. He filed an incident report.
Sgt. Darren Moss, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said there were several violent crimes happening early Saturday morning during the same time of Derek’s emergency.
Jessica Kulaas, South Sound 911’s education coordinator, said Derek’s wife’s 911 call was handled according to policy. Kulaas said there was a reason the couple did not get to speak with a dispatcher as fast as they expected.
"At the same time during his incident, when he called 911, there were other high priority emergencies being called in," said Kulaas. "So, he experienced a bit of a delay there with the call being picked up."
Kulaas said the dispatch center is staffed 24/7. She encouraged anyone who calls 911 during an emergency not to hang up, even if the phone rings more than expected.
"If you do happen to call 911 and the lines are ringing, it just means that there are other emergencies, other people calling in at the same time," said Kulaas. "We want to encourage callers that when they call 911 don't hang up. Stay on the line, we will answer your call. If you do hang up, what happens is it starts the process all over again."
Though Kulaas confirmed the dispatch center was staffed on Saturday morning, Derek questioned if the agency was experiencing a staffing shortage.
"Everybody’s shorthanded and everything else, but for emergency purposes, that’s one place that should not be short. People need help," said Derek.
South Sound 911 and Pierce County Sheriff’s Office have contracted guidelines to determine priority levels for emergency calls.
Pierce County is divided into districts with deputies assigned to patrol each district. Sgt. Moss explained if a deputy from one district is responding to a Priority One call, like a shooting or armed robbery, a deputy from a neighboring district is called over to assist lower level calls. However, if deputies in multiple districts are responding to high priority emergencies, like what happened Saturday morning, it lowers the priority of other calls for help.
"Your emergencies are important. They're important to us, too. At the same time, when you’re calling, there could be several other things happening. So, we just want to encourage callers to stay on the line, we'll answer that call. They're answered in the order they are received," said Kulaas.
Derek’s classic car that was stolen Saturday morning was a white 1979 Malibu with an all red interior. It has not been found.
Derek said he understood there was a lot of criminal activity that morning. However, his point was he and his wife had to wait to speak to someone before the priority level was ever determined. That is what is causing his frustration behind the unfortunate experience.
"You’d like to rely on 911 thinking that’s going to be your saving grace," said Derek. "But it’s not working right now."