City grapples with high 911 call volume 

San Francisco is having a problem handling the volume of 911 calls coming into The City’s emergency communication centers, due to a shortage of call takers and dispatchers, according to city officials.

"We’re having a huge problem," Mayor Gavin Newsom said last week at a press conference to introduce San Francisco’s new 311 phone number, a city hotline established to handle nonemergency calls. "We’ve been aggressively trying to recruit call takers for 911."

San Francisco is budgeted for 187 dispatchers and call takers for 911 calls, according to David Ebarle with the Department of Emergency Management. Although 155 positions are filled, actual staffing levels are at 111, due to long-term disabilities.

With violent crime on the rise in San Francisco, according to statistics released last week by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and the number of police officers in The City below a voter-supported minimum, a shortage of 911 employees is one additional pressure to a public-safety system that is already overloaded.

As a result of the staffing shortage, approximately $1.5 million is expended on overtime costs to cover the vacancies, Ebarle said. Measures are being developed to curtail the cost, he added, but due to the nature of the 24-hour job, there will always be some overtime necessary, he said.

"We do not have the luxury of reducing service levels or running short," Ebarle said.

Public safety call takers have a turnover rate of 17 percent nationally, Bob Smith with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials said. In many municipalities, the pay is low and the hours are long and often involve working nights, weekends and holidays.

"Beyond that, there’s the stress that stems from the job itself," Smith said. "For eight, 10, 12 hours at a time, they’re making decisions that are literally life-and-death decisions. A single slip-up can cost someone their life."

The high volume of 911 calls — which has increased in part due to the proliferation of cell phones — also adds to the stress of the job, Smith said.

"Ten years ago, if you have a wreck on the interstate you may get only one phone call," he said. "Now, everyone driving by calls to report the accident."

San Francisco pays approximately $54,314 to $66,014 for 911 call takers, according to a newspaper advertisement for the job. Applicants are required to have a high school diploma or to have passed the general equivalency test, and have had one year of paid work in a public contact position in addition to an ability to type

40 words per minute.

The skills needed to become a 911 call taker narrows the pool of candidates, said Ebarle, who said the fact that other municipalities in the region are also recruiting 911 call takers adds to the challenge of hiring staff for San Francisco.

City officials are also hoping that the introduction of the 311 nonemergency number will relieve San Francisco’s overburdened 911 system. More than half of San Francisco’s 911 calls are not emergencies, Newsom said last week. A 1998National Institute of Justice study found that a 311 system could reduce calls to 911, when accompanied by an effective public awareness campaign.

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Bonnie Eslinger

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