RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — When a Richmond woman tried to call 911 to report a car break-in, she told 8News that her calls were not answered. Instead, she was sent to an automated message saying all operators were busy.

According to Karen Gill with Richmond Department of Emergency Communications, this message was not voicemail, but instead an automated recording given to callers during busy call times.

“Calls to 911 in Richmond are not sent to voice mail,” Gill told 8News. “During times when more 911 calls are coming in than available call-takers can answer, some callers may get a recording.”

Gill sent 8News a copy of the recording, which says “We are experiencing an unusually high volume of emergency calls at this time. Your call is important to us. Please remain on the line and the first available communications officer will answer your emergency call.”

According to Gill and Tommy Tucker with the Chesterfield Department of Emergency Communications, some 911 callers may need to wait simply because no one is there to take their call. Staffing shortages since the pandemic are creating strain within emergency communication departments in Central Virginia. Right now, Chesterfield is down 16 of its operators, which is about 25% of its workforce. Richmond is down 33 out of its 72 operators.

“Operators will work overtime,” Tucker said. “They’ll work 4 additional overtime hours for a 12 hour shift, or management will fill the gaps.”

He said the department is working to fill these gaps and make more operators available to emergency callers.

“We continue to advertise,” Tucker said. “We go out to job events. We put billboards out…we put banners out, and go to social media to let people know we are hiring and we are looking for people who want to serve.”

Gill said it is understandable for people to panic if they call 911 and get a recording. However, hanging up and calling back will only delay the response even more. Gill adds that operators try to answer calls within seconds.

According to Tucker, if a call goes unanswered, an operator will call back. In an emergency, callers should stay on the line, or find another way to contact 911.

“They should not panic. Don’t hang the phone up. We will call you back,” Tucker said. “Also, if you do have an emergency, you can text 911.”