(TNS) - Fresno Police Department’s dispatchers answer every type of 911 call made within city limits — among other responsibilities.
They answer calls for medical aid, reports of fire, or when people report violent crimes like shootings and homicides. They take non-emergency calls, like when people call 911 looking for police detectives or to check a pending case.
They take the call when a suicidal person asks for an officer to arrive before their family finds their body. They answer the call when rape victims report the crime — sometimes as it’s happening.
“We hear the screams, and it’s very troubling to listen to those calls,” said Kathy DeBorde, a supervisor for Fresno Police Department’s communications division. “Then we hang up, and take the next call. There’s no downtime. We encourage it, but our dispatchers are committed to their job. … If you’re not in the room, those calls won’t get answered.”
But dispatchers working for Fresno Police Department are struggling to meet a state mandate to answer 95 percent of 911 calls in 15 seconds or less. Since the recession, staffing levels in the communications center haven’t kept pace with demand, even though most dispatchers work overtime daily.
Plus, the call volume only continues to increase as people use 911 more often for non-emergency calls. Police officials say it’s a national problem they’re dealing with in real time.
“Our inability to meet the state standard for answering 911 calls is what keeps me up at night,” said Lt. David Newton, the department’s communications bureau manager.
During a June budget hearing before the Fresno City Council, Chief Jerry Dyer discussed the need for more officers. But, he said the No. 1 need in the department wasn’t more patrol officers — it’s in the communication center.
Dyer mentioned a Los Angeles wrongful death lawsuit in which an 11-year-old girl suffered an asthma attack and died. Family members called 911 but were put on hold multiple times before being incorrectly routed to a fire station, the lawsuit alleges.
“That’s my worst nightmare,” Dyer told the council.
Lower staffing as calls increase
Fresno PD typically answers around 70-75 percent of 911 calls within 15 seconds, and in the summer months, the busiest time for crime, that rate dips to around 60 percent. So far, numbers this summer are better than last year.
The communication center has a status board that shows all dispatch activity. Rarely does it show a dispatcher waiting for a new call, DeBorde said.
The department currently has 87 dispatcher positions, eight fewer than in 1997. Yet in the 20 years since 1997, 911 calls to Fresno PD increased from 777,600 to 952,000 in 2017.
So even if all the dispatch positions are filled, there’s still fewer people to answer more calls.
And it takes a lot of time to fill those spots with qualified people willing to work a tough job.
Newton expects four employees to complete training and be ready to work independently by the end of the summer. Sixteen more people are going through training, which will take a full year so they’re qualified to answer 911 calls and work the radio with officers in the field. The application process, which includes a background check, takes four to six months.
“It takes as long to train a dispatcher as a police officer,” he said.
In training, dispatchers learn exactly what to ask callers, when to ask it and why to ask it. Plus, dispatchers learn how to manage the three screens and CAD programs for taking calls. Working the radio with officers requires even more screens.
“Dispatchers aren’t just an operator,” DeBorde said. “We’re true first responders.”
The increasing demands on top of what’s already a high-stress job makes it hard to stick around until retirement, she said.
The busiest time for the communication center is from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Daytime hours are busy with non-emergency calls, and 911 calls pick up at night.
Solutions and funding
The police department has established an automated system for non-emergency callers in an effort to relieve dispatchers from those calls. That’s where people may be on hold and get frustrated, Newton said.
The police department has a back-up call center that can be used for non-emergency calls, but it sits empty. “The solution, in my opinion, is elegant,” Newton said. “It’s not cheap. It’s doable, but it’s expensive.”
In an ideal world, Newton would staff up the back-up call center. It would take about $30,000 for the initial setup, and up to 16 employees could work there. Staff costs would amount to about $950,000 annually.
Newton would then train up non-emergency call center employees to fill dispatch vacancies as needed.
“We already have the infrastructure in place, and we know the cost,” he said. “But it sits empty because there’s not staff to staff it up.”
During the June budget hearings, Council President Esmeralda Soria and Councilman Luis Chavez asked the mayor’s administration to make it a priority to add 13 dispatchers and 12 community service officers as money becomes available, which would bring staffing up to pre-recession levels. Soria also noted it’s important to attract good candidates and pay them to retain good employees.
Councilman Garry Bredefeld, who represents District 6 in northeast Fresno, says the city has the money to fix the issue if elected officials choose to prioritize public safety.
Bredefeld motioned during budget hearings to allocate an additional $2.4 million for dispatch and fire services, but the motion didn’t earn support from his fellow council members. Soria noted the money was one-time funding and wouldn’t provide for ongoing costs of hiring employees.
“We all talk and campaign on making public safety our No. 1 priority,” Bredefeld said. “When you have money available, and you know the 911 dispatch needs personnel in order to be responsive, it’s a no-brainer to apply that money to public safety. The council made a major mistake.”
Mayor Lee Brand says his public safety and parks tax initiative proposal would’ve helped. Bredefeld disagreed, saying raising tax money is unnecessary.
“We have significant challenges facing our first responders, and a lack of adequate staffing for our 9-1-1 dispatchers is just one part of the equation,” Brand said in a statement to The Bee.
“We are working on a solution, but we still need to address the other half of the equation, which is dispatching officers after we answer 911 calls. In addition to emergency dispatchers, we also need more police officers and firefighters.”
But the City Council did not support the mayor’s proposal, despite support from Dyer, Fire Chief Kerri Donis, and both police and fire unions. Brand said he will continue looking for money to support public safety.
Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix
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