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911 Wait Times Scrutinized As San Diego Police Give 5-Year Plan Update

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.

San Diego's shortage of 911 dispatchers is a continuing issue of concern at the City Council, and the issue has become part of the mayoral race.

San Diego's problem with long 911 wait times was under scrutiny Wednesday as the Police Department presented an update to its five-year plan.

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told the City Council's public safety committee that the department's primary goal over the next two years is to fill all of its vacancies. She also highlighted the steps the department had taken to address 911 dispatcher staffing shortages, including hiring year-round.

The department is currently short 166 sworn officers and 52 civilian staff.

Ed Harris is a former city councilman and a lifeguard union leader who is challenging Mayor Kevin Faulconer in his bid for re-election. Harris told the council committee that the 911 dispatcher shortage cannot be solved with money alone.

Ed Harris, Democratic candidate for San Diego mayor, speaks at a City Council committee, May 18, 2016.

"I'm in a unique position to talk about this because I sat where you are on this very committee," he said. "I'm also a 911 dispatcher for the lifeguard service. I've also been in public safety for 26 years. This is not a money issue. This is a failure to manage and a failure to plan."

Harris added that the council should speak to 911 dispatchers directly to get an unfiltered understanding of why some of their colleagues are leaving the job. The head of the union that represents 911 dispatchers has cited the job's high stress, mandatory overtime and the lack of guaranteed pensions as reasons for high attrition.

Faulconer has been praised by union leaders and the police chief for his actions to address the dispatcher shortage. A spokesman for the mayor said Faulconer had raised the base salary for dispatchers and awarded retention incentives.

The mayor also offered an additional $650,000 in his revised budget for fiscal 2017 to recruit and retain 911 dispatchers, as well as $4 million for the recruitment and retention of sworn officers. The announcement came two weeks after Faulconer held a news conference addressing the dispatcher shortage and wait time problem.

Councilman Todd Gloria said he wanted to know how that money would be spent before he judged its effectiveness.

"I don't know anything about it," Gloria said. "I’d like to know a hell of a lot more, because I have had constituents contact me very upset about not having folks answering the phone."

Faulconer, a Republican, is up for re-election on June 7. His main challengers are Harris, a Democrat, and former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, who is running as an independent. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a November runoff.

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