CHESTERFIELD, Mo. – John Reichman’s Friday night dinner at his Chesterfield home will forever be singed into his memory. A flash fire on his propane grill left him with first-degree burns and second thoughts about what should happen when you dial 911.
“All of the sudden he comes running in screaming, ‘Call 911! Call 911!’” said Eunice Reichman, John’s wife.
She made the call but was shocked at the response on the other end of the line.
“I called 911. And I was told the circuits were busy. ‘Stay on the line. Don’t hang up.’ We’ll get to you in the order we have. That was a recording,” she said.
Eunice says she hung up, called again, and got the same message.
“All I could think of was, ‘What’s wrong with our system?’” she said.
John added: “I expect when you call 911 to talk to a human, not an answering machine.”
But it turns out, that might not always be the case these days. 911 calls for Chesterfield are answered at the St. Louis County Police Department Bureau of Communications. A department spokesperson says the average time for a dispatcher to answer a call over the weekend was 5.4 seconds. During peak times, like when Eunice called Friday around 6 p.m., St. Louis County PD says callers may have to wait one to three minutes, but that’s not normal.
The department says it does have staffing issues at the call center right now, but not to the point where it’s missing calls or leaving people on hold for long periods of time. The spokesperson says the department realizes that when people are having an emergency, a minute or two can seem like an incredibly long time, but contends it’s not having issues answering calls for service.
“I can’t accept being put on hold for 44 seconds even,” Reichman said.
John was eventually able to extinguish the fire and drive to urgent care for treatment of his burns. But what really burns him is what might’ve happened had the situation been worse.
“I want to be able to help the county resolve this problem,” he said.
Doing that could be as simple as increasing the number of dispatchers the county has on staff. The county is still actively trying to hire dispatchers.