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Mayor issues plan to address 911 dispatch issues

Posted at 12:37 PM, May 03, 2016

Amid a flurry of publicity about unfortunate and "unacceptable" delays in San Diego's response to several extremely urgent 911 calls, Mayor Kevin Faulconer today announced a slate of strategies to do away with emergency-services lag times.

"When you call 911, there must be an answer," Faulconer said during an afternoon briefing. "In the vast majority of the time, the call is picked up in a matter of seconds. But that's not always the case."

In response, the mayor pledged to institute more "aggressive" dispatcher recruitment policies and pay schedules; assign more back-up employees to the city's 911 call center; publicly report dispatch call statistics on a monthly basis so citizens can track them; analyze dispatcher work procedures to reveal improvement opportunities; and educate the public on when and how to properly use the system.

"The longer 911 wait times that have been reported are unacceptable to me," Faulconer told reporters outside downtown police headquarters.

Last month, a Mira Mesa couple whose dog had mauled their newborn son was repeatedly unable to get through to a 911 operator, officials said. Following the futile attempts to get an ambulance sent out, they took it upon themselves to rush the child to a hospital, where the infant was pronounced dead.

Two other 911-delay cases that recently came to light involved home invasions in Bankers Hill and La Jolla last fall. During those incidents, first reported by Voice of San Diego, residents waited more than eight minutes and nearly six minutes, respectively, to get dispatchers on the line after finding intruders in their homes in the middle of the night.

The mayor attributed the problems to chronic understaffing resulting from "years of cuts to public safety."

"The long shadow cast by San Diego's pension crisis and financial turmoil has meant that over the years dispatchers have had to work harder with fewer resources and fewer staff (members)," Faulconer said.

Those fiscal miseries "left deep scars" and put the city in "a deep hole from which we are still emerging," Faulconer said.

"And at the same time, a rise in 911 non-emergency calls has added to our challenges," he told reporters.

The city began working in earnest to fix the situation several years ago, adding 16 emergency and non-emergency lines, an increase of 30 percent, the mayor said. The improvement all but did away with the busy signals that sometimes would confront 911 callers, but in doing so created another hurdle.

"The good news is that we are now able to accept more calls than ever before," the mayor said. "The challenge is that a lot more calls are getting through, and sometimes there hasn't been enough dispatchers to handle all of them in a timely manner."

Between 2008 and last year, the volume of annual local 911 calls increased by 100,000, according to Faulconer.

City officials hope to streamline the system as rapidly as possible by recruiting and training new dispatchers more efficiently. Faulconer said he would release details about his proposed dispatcher recruitment proposals and pay packages in two weeks, during an update to his 2016-17 budget proposal.

Currently, there are 21 dispatcher vacancies that are fully funded in the city's spending plan, police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told news crews. To fill those slots more quickly, the SDPD has bolstered its backgrounds unit, a move that has "dramatically reduced" the amount of time it takes to vet and hire emergency operators, she said.

"I will tell you, all of these steps have been positive, making us much more competitive with other agencies," Zimmerman said.

The goal is to answer at least 90 percent of emergency calls within 10 seconds, Zimmerman said. Last year, San Diego reached that target 80.67 percent of the time, and the average local wait time was 13 seconds, according to the mayor's office.

In 2015, the city's 911 center received a total of 672,834 calls, city officials reported.

Despite the promised slate of high-priority remedies, the dispatch system will not be cured of its longtime ailments overnight, the mayor cautioned.

"Just as it took time for these issues to develop, it's going to take time to completely fix the problem," Faulconer said. "(But) I am determined to move our dispatch operations -- as we have been doing -- in the right direction, so that San Diego remains one of the safest big cities in the nation."

The city provided the following information:

Between Fiscal Year 2008 and Fiscal Year 2012, public safety -- including emergency dispatch -- saw reductions as City leaders worked to balance the budget in the face of rising pension bills and an economic recession. Budgeted and actual positions decreased almost every year over that period.

At the same time, annual call volume began to increase dramatically. There were more than 100,000 more calls to 9-1-1 in Fiscal Year 2015 compared to Fiscal Year 2008 (626,694 vs. 526,391).

A contributing factor is additional phone lines. Until 2014, callers to 9-1-1 would receive a busy signal if all lines were full. To avoid this, 16 lines were added over the last two years (10 in June 2014 and 6 in November 2015). The additional lines decreased busy signals but allowed for an increase in call capacity.

As a result, call wait times pre-2014 are not directly comparable to today because the dispatch system does not track callers who receive busy signals.