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Public Safety

San Diego's 911 Dispatcher Shortage Is Years Old

A police dispatcher sits at his desk in this undated photo.
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
Death Of Mira Mesa Baby Highlights 911 Wait Time Problem GUEST: Mike Zucchet, general manager, Municipal Employees Association Shelly Zimmerman, police chief, San Diego Police Department

San Diego's were saddened to hear the story out of Mira Mesa. A newborn was bitten by the family dog and died . As the story unfolded we learned that the family took the boy to the hospital themselves, to calls failed to get through to 911. San Diego police say the boy's father hung on the line for 28 seconds and hung up and call back only to wait 34 seconds before hanging up again. The national standard wait time is 10 seconds. It's not clear exactly why the wait times were long last Thursday, both the SP the admit there has been trouble retaining 911 dispatchers and they are presently understaffed. Joining me is San Diego police chief Shelley Zimmerman. Chiefs Zimmerman, how understaffed is the 911 police dispatch unit? We have our 911 dispatchers and we also have our radio dispatchers, that's 134 budgeted positions. We are 21 vacancies, hundred 13 positions, as of today. How unusual is a wait time for 911 of close to 30 seconds? As we look at our statistics, the last two weeks we averaged about 13 seconds wait time for 911. When we looked at the calendar, last year we averaged 13 seconds for picking up a 911 call. Police say 12 dispatchers were on duty Thursday night. Considering that you are understaffed, how many should there have been? One of the things that we look at, we take the average of the calls that come in the day, the hour and that's how we look at our staffing model. We had 12 dispatchers that were working, I think it's important to know that anytime, no matter how many dispatchers, those calls could spike depending on the critical incident was at the time. If there was a shooting, a fire, whatever the incident might be, calls could spike at anytime. Michael, what led to the staffing shortage? It goes back to 2009 and 2010 in the great recession. The city faced a number of bad choices at that time, they had to cut hundreds of millions from the budget. In addition to it actually laying off employees across the city, Esther not take bodies out of the communications division of SP PD. As people retired, they didn't fill those positions. Of a number of bad choices, they did the best they could, the problem coming out of that is that the economy has come out of it it's been very hard to hire those positions back and going back now three years, we have been feeling the effects of what happened in 2010. What of you heard from your rank and file dispatchers? It's very difficult, it's a difficult job under the best of circumstances. There are absolute professionals and they are also human beings. When they look up at the big board and see a 911 wait time, it just adds to the stress, it adds to the stress that they are on mandatory overtime and have to come back just to make sure that the staffing meets minimum requirements. It's been a challenging environment. They have been happy at the actions particularly of Mayor Faulconer over the last year, he has been on this and chief Jim Benemann Jos -- Chiefs Zimmerman has been trying to do everything to turn this ship around. He is done a lot of great things. Because it's a name grained problem it's hard to do that on the dime. I want to talk to Chiefs Zimmerman about mandatory overtime. It's true, we have to fill these positions, as we are going to the hiring process, we want to make sure there's somebody there to answer that call. We do have mandatory overtime to make sure we have someone there. I agree with Michael Zucchet , we of been working closely to solve the issue, tran18's budget we talk about previous budgets he is included adding communications, equally fully funding those positions allowing our department now to have the ability to hire all of our budgeted positions. One might say for the sake of argument that Mayor Kevin Faulconer , in promoting proposition B which eliminated pensions for city workers might have contributed to the fact that these workers are now so difficult to hire and retain. Would you agree? On the impacts of pop the -- proposition B. In the best of times this is a difficult position, that's true of all police agencies. What specific to San Diego is we are the only agency in the state that doesn't offer defined benefit pensions for new hires. If you want to pursue a career, San Diego may not be your first choice, because there is essentially a competitive disadvantage. That said, Mayor Kevin Faulconer has worked around that and come up with creative solutions to raise the compensation and the starting pay to address the specific problem. In general, it's unmistakable that this is one of the unintended consequences of proposition B that's coming home. Mayor Kevin Faulconer, critically important, our entry dispatcher positions, to make us more competitive, we now hire at eight see step which is a 10% increase from the beginning in starting pay. As a look at the 11 people that we have hired this year, all of them are still with our police department. That's great news. Chief Zimmerman , overall salaries are frozen until 2018, with that, how does San Diego, how are you going to go about filling the vacant dispatch jobs since everybody agrees that this agency is understaffed? What Michael Zucchet was saying it took us years to get to this position where previous mayors had cut positions from our budget during the reception -- recession. It had to be done to balance the budget. Unfortunately, we hired in very few numbers and we had many people leave. These last two years since Mayor Kevin Faulconer has been mayor we have hired 21 last year and currently at 11. I want to say that we expect to hire three more within the next couple of weeks. Many others are different stages of our hiring process. I want to get this out, we are looking for me. -- More people who are looking to make a positive impact on our community. Pretty much out of time Michael Zucchet. What's the morale like among dispatchers after an incident like Mira Mesa? It doesn't help, as I say, they are absolute total professionals. They have been dealing with these staffing shortages in various forms of tragedies for a number of years. They have and will continue to get through this. The light at the end of the tunnel that the chief is describing, really helps. I don't think they have felt that for a few years and they are feeling and out. If we can come through and continue to do more, the mayor and the chief now we need to do more. If we continue, we can turn this around, if they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I've been speaking with Chief Zimmerman and Michael Zucchet . Thank you both very much.

San Diego’s 911 Dispatcher Shortage Is Years Old
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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