9 Investigates: 911 calls sent to audio recording instead of dispatcher

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When you need help in an emergency you know to call 911. But Channel 9 discovered that a dispatcher may not always immediately answer the phone.

Anchor Allison Latos has been investigating the concerns from callers who worry what could happen during that wait.

There are dispatchers working around the clock at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, but Allison found that sometimes there are too many 911 calls coming in and not enough dispatchers to answer them all right away.

Instead of getting a real person, callers may get a recording -- a message that some fear panicked callers may be too flustered to understand clearly.

Last month, while Toni South’s mother was visiting her Cotswold neighborhood home, she said two men with a truck full of pine straw stopped by, offering landscaping for $5 a bale.

South’s mother wanted to surprise her with the gift of yardwork and agreed to pay $100.

“She said to them, ‘I’m leaving. We’re going to do some shopping at Marshalls but my husband is here and he’ll pay you,’” South told Channel 9.

That’s when, South said, things turned tense -- almost terrifying -- for her mother.

“They said, ‘You owe us $600.’ My dad was super flustered,” South said. “He had $180 in his wallet and he gave them $180. Then they showed up at Marshalls. She (the mother) was afraid he was going to grab her purse because he was being sort of threatening.”

He mom tried to call police.

“She called 911,” South said. “She called six times and each time it went to a message.”

That message said: “Please do not hang up. This is the 911 emergency line. Your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

(WATCH: Action 9 warns about businesses that go door-to-door selling pine straw)

Jarrett Allen also told Channel 9 he got that recording when he dialed 911 while driving.

“Someone had lost a mattress in the middle of the road,” Allen said, adding that he worries about callers with true emergencies.

“If I’m in my house and I have a burglar knocking down my door, it could be really hard to think,” Allen said.

Channel 9 asked CMPD why a dispatcher doesn’t immediately answer every 911 call.

“We strive to answer every call that comes into our 911 center within the first 10 seconds,” said CMPD Maj. Dave Robinson.

He said that so far this year, 91.3% of those calls have been answered within 10 seconds. He said their average pickup time is less than five seconds.

Here’s how their system works: When a caller dials 911, the system answers and determines A) if a dispatcher is available and B) which call has been open the longest.

That process takes three seconds. If no dispatcher is available, the caller goes into a queue.

If there’s no answer after 18 seconds, the caller hears the recording.

“Stay on the line, stay patient, we are doing the very best we can,” Robinson said. “We are a finite resource and I say that not as an excuse, but we have people who answer the calls as they come in.”

Robinson said what ‘doesn’t help is the fact that some people misuse 911.

CMPD records show South’s mother waited on hold for more than two minutes because, at the time, call volume was 29% higher than normal.

Eventually, she did speak to a dispatcher and the men demanding money took off. South’s mom made it home safe, but she worries someone in critical need of help won’t have the time to wait.

CMPD told Channel 9 that out of the 165 dispatcher positions the department has, 13 are vacant, which adds to the challenge of answering every call within 10 seconds.

CMPD said that if you are in an emergency and get that recording, you should not hang up and dial 911 again. If you do that, your call with automatically go to the end of the line, making your wait even longer.

Stay on the line, a dispatcher will answer.

(WATCH: New Jersey outlaws false 911 calls, police reports based on race, bias)