It's an emergency and you call 911 for help. But the phone just rings and rings. Minutes pass before a 911 dispatcher finally answers your call. It can feel like a lifetime if you've been in an accident, or have an intruder in your home, or have a family member with a medical issue.
If you dial 911 from a cell phone in Los Angeles County, that could actually happen. You may have to wait for your emergency call to be answered by a dispatcher, according to a group of California Highway Patrol insiders who are speaking with the NBC4 I-team for the first time.
"Pray that you get an answer," said one CHP insider.
"Good luck. Good luck getting through," said another when asked what can happen when calling 911 with an emergency.
NBC4 agreed to protect the names of the CHP insiders because they fear retaliation from the CHP.
"Somebody is going to die with this equipment we have. Somebody is going to die because we can't get to the calls to answer the calls. It's just a matter of time," said one insider.
If you call 911 in Los Angeles County using your cell phone, it's a good chance that your call will end up at the CHP's Los Angeles Communications Center (LACC) that is staffed by both sworn-CHP officers and civilian dispatchers.
The large dispatch room is calmer than you'd expect, considering the stakes. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the dispatchers field cell phone calls from people with emergencies that run the gamut of life and death. With calming voices and a professional demeanor, these women and men are tasked with getting help quickly to those who need it.
"They deal with a wide variety of things on this floor, anything from answering 911 calls of babies not breathing to suicidal subjects to freeway shooters," explained CHP Lieutenant Joe Zizi, who is part of the leadership team at the LACC.
"They take that information they enter it into a computer program, they then if it is our responsibility, dispatch it to the appropriate unit," he said.
Another group of dispatchers handles the radio traffic with first responders. They provide time-sensitive information and logistical support to officers, deputies and medical personnel during emergencies and help them with their daily work including running license plates and dealing with freeway problems.
"I know that I signed up for a job to help people and I can't do that right now and it feels awful," said one CHP insider.
That's because the LACC is severely understaffed and is using outdated equipment that can't handle the demanding needs of a County as large as Los Angeles, according to the CHP insiders we spoke with.
"We don't have the staff needed to handle all of Los Angeles County," said one of the CHP insiders. "It's very well-known that we don't have the support we need, however, nothing is ever done about it."
The insiders say the LACC Center handles around 2 million calls each year and serves much of Los Angeles County. But they say unfilled positions, medical leaves, vacations, and sick calls contribute to understaffing which can make it difficult to respond quickly to emergencies.
"We may only have 2 people on 911s and you get a lot of angry people because they can't get through because there's not enough staffing to actually answer the 911 calls," explained one insider.
The CHP tells the NBC4 I-Team that the LACC is currently answering 91 percent of its 911 calls in 15 seconds or less and they dispute the claim that only 2 people have ever been solely responsible for handling 911 calls.
"I can tell you that my supervisors are required to get on the floor and also answer 911 calls as well as the radios helping out on the calls," Zizi said.
"For example, if there are two people on the 911 side of the floor that you saw, there are still 12 to 14 people on the dispatch side that you saw that are required to sign on and answer 911 calls," he added.
When that happens, however, the CHP insiders say the radio dispatchers who are primarily responsible for working with law enforcement are now put in a difficult position by having to do double duty. They have to work with their first responders and field 911 calls. When it gets busy, the insiders say these dispatchers have to decide which emergency is more important.
"A dispatcher should not be put in a position to where they have to tell an officer no I can't fulfill your request and yes ma'am I heard everything that you're saying but I'm also working a radio," one CHP insider said.
The insiders say dispatchers sometimes have a phone in one ear, speaking with a CHP officer, and a head-set on another so they can field an 911 emergency call from the public. In this case, they say, a dispatcher has to work two separate emergencies at the same time.
Zizi disputes that claim and says that situation doesn't happen at the LACC.
"A dispatcher won't handle two emergencies at once," Zizi said. "It's just not feasible to pay attention to both. If a 911 call rings in their ear and it is a legitimate emergency, the dispatch call that they're handling can be passed off to another dispatcher."
Zizi, however, concedes that the Center has had some staffing challenges in the past.
"So yes, there were some absentee bodies during this period and it was difficult to maintain staffing, however, overtime was utilized to try and meet that goal," Zizi said.
According to Zizi, there are no legal requirements for answering calls in a specific amount of time but the CHP does follow the guidelines of two organizations -- The National Emergency Number Association and California's Office of Emergency Services.
"We are trying to meet the guidelines of these associations that are saying this is what the communication center should do, and by in large we're doing it," Zizi said.
But data provided by the CHP shows the LACC failed to meet some or all of those guidelines every month in 2016. And an internal memo obtained by the NBC4 I-Team states that "during the year of 2015, LACC, was only able to meet service standards 3 of the 12 months of the year."
"These particular months you're correct, you're correct, we did not meet it, but every day we're having meetings about what we can do to better staff, what we can do to better hire," Zizi said.
The insiders tell us that better is not good enough and that they are worried about the public's safety when dispatchers can't answer calls quickly.
"Calls go unanswered. People hang up from being on eternal ring," one CHP insider said.
The CHP insiders say they've all seen calls ring for 8 or more minutes before a dispatcher finally answered the call.
Because of their concerns about the system, the insiders say they tell their own families and friends, "if they have an emergency, do not call 911 on your cell phone."
But the problems don't end with staffing issues, claim the CHP insiders. They say the computer system that they use for tracking emergency calls frequently breaks down or slows down so it's unusable.
"You're in the middle of a 911 call that is a true emergency and the computer just shuts down then locks you out so you can't even log back on," explained one CHP insider.
Another insider explains that when the computer system fails or freezes, dispatchers are forced to use index cards for tracking and reporting emergencies.
"The more calls that we have the slower the equipment gets because it's not the equipment needed for a high volume call center that takes 911s," said one CHP insider.
Zizi says a new dispatch system is coming soon and that should resolve the technical problems.
"We are on the cusp of getting a new telephone system and that will be installed by the beginning of next year," Zizi said.
He also says the LACC recently purchased new furniture for the center.
Zizi says he's not personally seen any of the problems expressed by the CHP insiders but he tells the NBC4 I-Team that the leadership team will look into the allegations.
"It's hard for me to believe that you're talking to our staff because they are constantly reminded of the statistics at this center," Zizi said. "So for someone to not have faith in that, it perplexes me."
But just minutes before the interview with Zizi, during our visit to the dispatch center, we overheard employees talking about the LACC's staffing issues.
"It's great to have all these people on 911," said one LACC employee. "I know. Wouldn't it be nice all the time," replied another employee. "All the time, it would be wonderful," another said.
The insiders say the CHP management shouldn't be surprised. They tell us they've been complaining about these problems for years.
"The problem is everybody knows this problem exists but everyone's afraid to say anything. It's been like that for a long time," one CHP insider said.
Until something changes, the insiders say they worry someone will be injured or killed because they can't get help fast enough when calling 911.
"I would like the public to know that their safety is in jeopardy every single day and the department is very well aware of the staffing shortage," said one CHP insider.