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San Diego’s 911 Dispatcher Shortage Is Years Old

Photo caption: A police dispatcher sits at his desk in this undated photo.

Photo credit: San Diego Police Department

A police dispatcher sits at his desk in this undated photo.

Death Of Mira Mesa Baby Highlights 911 Wait Time Problem


Mike Zucchet, general manager, Municipal Employees Association

Shelly Zimmerman, police chief, San Diego Police Department


Death Of Mira Mesa Baby Highlights 911 Wait Time Problem

The shortage of 911 dispatchers in the San Diego Police Department was laid bare by the death last week of a baby boy who was bitten by the family dog. His parents called 911 twice but hung up after waiting on hold for about 30 seconds with each call.

Being a 911 dispatcher is a high-stress job, and many applicants don't meet the high standards that are required, said Mike Zucchet, head of the Municipal Employees Association, which represents city dispatchers.

But that's just part of the reason why San Diego hasn’t been able to fill of all its open dispatcher positions.

Zucchet told KPBS on Wednesday that the staffing problem goes back to the budget cuts forced by the Great Recession. Despite the economic recovery, the city still hasn't been able to fill all of its vacancies.

"When they get short-staffed, they mandatorily bring back people to work, which hurts morale," he said. "The more morale gets hurt, the more people leave. The more people leave, the worse the staffing shortage becomes, and it sort of spirals."

Retired 911 dispatcher Lucille Tulumello agreed low morale, mandatory overtime and burnout are major reasons for the staffing shortage. She recalled one co-worker who was denied a day off to attend her own wedding. The woman arrived to work 10 minutes late that day and had her pay docked, Tulumello said.

"It would take a toll on your family life, because you were working weekends and holidays," she said. "In the 19 years I worked there, I think I got only three Christmases off."

The issue of 911 wait times is entering the mayoral campaign — Ed Harris, the Democrat challenging Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer in the June election, put out a news release criticizing the mayor and calling on Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman to fix the problem or resign.

Zimmerman told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday that the mayor has done a good job with limited resources, and that 911 wait times can be volatile.

"No matter how many dispatchers were working, those calls could spike depending on whatever the critical incident was at the time," she said. "If there was a shooting incident, a fire, whatever the incident, calls could spike at any time."

Because of the staffing shortage, the city is filling vacancies by requiring mandatory overtime for dispatchers and offering overtime to police officers who previously trained as dispatchers.

In 2012, San Diego voters eliminated pensions and froze the wages of city employees with the passage of Proposition B. Neighboring cities and the county Sheriff's Department offer better pay and benefits to dispatchers, making it tough to hire dispatchers and keep them.

The pay range for city dispatchers is $37,440 to $45,178 a year, though they earn more with overtime. Under a contract signed last year, they will get a raise in 2018.


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