A December audit revealed the Fort Worth Police Department does not have clear, written policies on how 911 response times goals are calculated — and it hasn’t updated its goals since 2017.

For each ‘priority 1’ call (considered the highest level of emergency), officers are supposed to respond within 8 minutes and 54 seconds — from the time the call was answered to when an officer arrives on scene. An analysis of calls by the auditor’s office from October 2019 to December 2020 showed officers were failing to respond within that time frame for 46% of high-priority emergency calls. 

Now, the department is in the midst of updating its response time goals and drafting new policies, which it intends to release in June. So far, its biggest discovery has been a sobering one: There’s no single formula for finding the perfect response time. 

“I’d love to find a formula,” said Capt. Robin Krouse. “If I did, I’d leave here and go on tour.” 

Other Texas departments, including Austin and Dallas, are undergoing a similar process. The Report spoke to representatives from both cities to understand what they’re doing to fix response times, and if the same solutions could be implemented in Fort Worth. 

How do other police departments calculate response time goals?

In Dallas, the department takes several factors into consideration when updating response time goals, including the number of 911 calls the department received in a given year, staffing trends and seasonal fluctuations. Looking at data over a longer period of time is important, 911 Communications Administrator Robert Uribe said, because outliers can be misleading.

“A trend doesn’t emerge from one week to the next,” he said. “So you’re having to take a look at not only certain months of the year, but you have to go back and compare them to years past because it depends on the time of the year. Summers obviously become a little more intense for police response activity, as opposed to the coldest days of the year.”

In Fort Worth, the department uses call and response data from 2014 to set its key performance indicators. Fort Worth generally looks at the median response time from years past to determine its goals for the future, but different neighborhood and area layouts mean response times can fluctuate quite a bit from division to division, Krouse said.

“To come up with a single number for the entire city is basically you just gotta decide what you’re gonna be accepting of,” Krouse said.

What are the Fort Worth Police Department’s current response time goals?

Priority 1: 8 minutes and 54 seconds. These calls represent the greatest threat to an individual’s safety. Examples of priority 1 calls include: robbery, sexual assault, shooting, individual with a gun, kidnapping, arson, medical emergency/not breathing etc.

Priority 2: 17 minutes and 18 seconds. These calls do not present an immediate threat to an individual’s safety, but still require a rapid response.

Priority 3: 52 minutes. These calls do not present an immediate threat, and do not require a rapid response.

The next step after determining a response time goal, Uribe said, is creating a plan with action items. This may include realigning shifts, redefining call types and priority ranking, and changing daily procedures to increase efficiency.

“There is no absolute formula,” he said. “You do have to understand your community and your department, and align all those things collectively to ensure you’re creating the best plan possible.”

The Dallas department doesn’t update its response time goals on a strict schedule, but leaders look at overall response times on a weekly basis to make sure they’re in tune with any worrying trends. 

“Our biggest challenge that we’ve had is not necessarily updating objectives. It’s that we’re constantly updating our plan to meet our objectives,” he said. 

In Austin, the department is turning to machine learning to calculate response time goals. Jonathan Kringen, chief data officer at Austin Police Department, said until a department sets concrete goals, there’s no reason to believe the response time means anything. Before Austin began setting response time goals using machine learning, the department identified several preferred outcomes: on-scene arrests, weapon recovery and no victim injuries. 

Kringen and a team of data scientists analyzed 6 million responses over five years and compared response times to outcomes. Sure enough, a faster response time netted each of the outcomes the department said it preferred. 

“The good thing about the Austin model is that if you’re using local data, you’re modeling the local environment,” he said.

However, Kringen said, the department does see diminishing returns for its response speed. 

“There’s a golden number, the best results for the least effort,” he said. “What’s the closest you can get to ideal without hiring a ludicrous amount of staff?”

In Austin, the researchers settled on 6 minutes and 30 seconds as the golden standard. To meet that time, according to the study, the department needs 882 patrol officers, 108 more than currently authorized. 

Machine learning offers an evidence-based solution to the issue of response times nationally, but few departments have data scientists like him actively working for them, Kringen said. Austin is exploring ways to make its method available to more departments in the future.

“The hard part is there are lots of professors who have a hard time integrating into the culture of policing,” he said. “So there’s a real challenge about, how do you get that kind of expertise and that level of training when you’re not hiring officers for it, because you’re hiring for patrol capacity instead.”

When asked by The Report, Krouse said the department had not heard of Austin’s model, but would look into it further.

What resources are most important to decreasing response time?

Both Austin and Dallas agree: Staffing is the most important factor when it comes to response times. 

But uniformed officers are only one part of the complicated response-time equation. Before an officer is ever sent to a scene, a staff member is assigned to answer 911 calls, and a dispatcher connects officers with people in need. Increasing the number of staffers taking calls is essential to seeing a decreased response time, Uribe said.

“If you can’t answer that phone, obviously you won’t get the help where it’s needed,” he said.

Last year, Dallas City Council passed a budget that gave the department more funding to hire staffers and increase their pay. The increased funding came after several years of officers not meeting their response time goals, caused in large part by staffing shortages at the 911 call center. 

The department has hired about 120 emergency communications staff in the past year, Uribe said.

“When we increased the base pay for prospective employees, it caught people’s notice,” he said. “They also get a bonus of $3,000 once they complete their training, and a stipend of $150 a month.”

The Fort Worth Police Department increased communication employees’ salaries by $6 an hour in November, bringing the entry-level starting pay to $25.08 an hour. Its call center is operated by one police officer and 119 civilian staffers, who are tasked with answering about 1.2 million emergency calls each year. In the past five months, Krouse said, the call center has hit its stride and is regularly meeting internal goals.

“Our times are very consistent with our KPIs (key performance indicators) in the call center/dispatch area,” Krouse said. “The largest variable is do I have someone to send on the call.”

While the department has experienced issues with call center staffing in the past, Krouse said, a shortage of patrol officers is the main problem when it comes to response times.  

Even with more call-takers and officers, Uribe said, there are some unavoidable parts of the process that will take time regardless. In order to make sure they’re sending an officer with as much knowledge as possible, call-takers must ask basic questions like the address of the incident, if a weapon is involved, and if they can describe the individual involved in the incident.

“Sometimes, callers get frustrated because they don’t understand why that question is relevant to what they’re asking for,” Uribe said. “So citizens really need to understand that the questions are being asked for their safety and the safety of the officers or EMS or firefighters that are responding.”

The most important thing a civilian can do to decrease response times is not hang up the phone, Krouse said.

“If you hang up and call back, you’ve created two calls, and you’re at the end of the line.”

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

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Emily Wolf

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She grew up in Round Rock, Texas, and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in investigative...