911 callers seeking help in Atlanta are sometimes put on hold due to staffing shortages at a police call center, according to a concerned City Council member.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is responding with an order for an operator recruitment and retention plan to be in place by Jan. 4.

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, right, sits with an operator at the Atlanta 911 call center during a December visit in a photo published in his constituent newsletter. (Special)

Reports of 911 callers getting recorded messages or being put on hold have spread in recent months through such venues as Buckhead’s Neighborhood Planning Units. 911 was especially hard to reach in the wake of damage from the remnants of Hurricane Zeta in late October, residents said.

Those concerns led City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit of Buckhead’s District 8 to make a solo visit to the 911 call center, located Downtown, in early December.

Matzigkeit said he learned that the call center has 45 vacant positions, which he understands is about 20% of the planned staffing level. Because 911 is paid for by fees on phone bills, those positions are funded, yet remain vacant, he said.

“Do it. Do it now,” Matzigkeit said in an interview about filling the vacant positions, while adding he understands that the pandemic may make that difficult. The city’s non-emergency 311 call center employees are working from home, he said, which may not be an option for the security-sensitive 911 positions.

Matzigkeit mentioned his call center visit in a constituent newsletter issued Dec. 7. On Dec. 18, the Mayor’s Office announced that Bottoms had issued an administrative order “calling for a pay and classification study of salary and compensation” for call center employees. The order requires the city Department of Human Resources to coordinate with the Atlanta Police Department on the plan to improve recruiting and retention.

Matzigkeit said he did not hear from Bottoms or the administration before or after the order, but is glad to see action.

He described his visit to the call center as both “frustrating” due to the staffing shortage and “inspiring” because of the performance of the current staff under the intense stress and responsibility of the job. In the newsletter, Matzigkeit said the visit convinced him to make call center staff one of his top priorities for the new year.

“After listening to nearly an hour of calls, I determined I could not do what they do,” he wrote. “It takes a unique person to handle those demands. They deserve our thanks and support. They will get mine.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.