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Mayor Lee vows to solve 911 response failures in two months

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Mayor Ed Lee has pledged to meet the national standard of emergency dispatch centers by answering 90 percent of emergency calls in 10 seconds. (Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)
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With pressure mounting over failing 911 response times, Mayor Ed Lee pledged Tuesday that San Francisco will within two months meet the national standard of answering 90 percent of emergency calls in 10 seconds.

The mayor committed to closing the staffing gap that prevents dispatchers from answering emergency calls on time “within the next month or two months” after a massive power outage struck last month while the 911 call center was short dispatchers.

“I want that 10 second turnaround standard to be there right now and then I want everybody to help me figure out what it is that we can do to get the best talent,” the mayor told reporters at City Hall.

The dispatch center did not even have the number of call-takers needed to answer calls within 10 seconds on a regular day when the outage struck April 21, leaving as many as 88,000 people without power and prompting more than 400 emergency calls in the first hour.

SEE RELATED: SF short 911 call-takers during massive power outage in April

In response to the outage, the mayor issued an executive directive on May 2 ordering the Department of Emergency Management to close the staffing gap and meet the national standard.

Lee said in the directive that the current staffing plan — to hire enough dispatchers to reach the national standard by 2018 — “is not fast enough” and urged the department to retain and recruit call-takers.

But Xiu Li, a representative of SEIU 1021’s 911 chapter, expressed doubt that the mayor could improve staffing enough to meet the national standard in the next two months.

Li said dispatchers have been leaving San Francisco not just because of the stress involved in the job, but because of the housing crisis.

“If he wants to meet that two-month goal, he would literally have to create a building where they can give condos [or] apartments to dispatchers so that they can live close to home,” Li said.

In his executive directive, the mayor said that dispatchers are currently answering 75 percent of calls within 10 seconds because of greater than expected staff turnover and higher call volumes.

“I’m trying to find out why after our infusion of some serious dollars — we’ve doubled that budget for 911 — that we’re still experiencing some staffing issues,” he told reporters.

According to his directive, the budget has increased by $24.7 million since he took office in 2011.

The mayor ordered the department to offer incentives for retired dispatchers to return to work, recruit dispatchers from other cities, hire temporary dispatchers from other city departments and maximize the size of training courses.

“Let’s recruit, let’s get some people out of retirement, let’s get other agencies that do have dispatcher experience to get them into our center so that the public is reassured that we’ve got a 911 system that works not a year from now but right now,” Lee told reporters.

The mayor also ordered DEM to hand over a weekly report on staffing levels and call response times.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who has called for a hearing on the 911 staffing shortages, said he was “heartened” to learn the mayor has taken an interest in emergency call response times.

“It has to be a critical priority for everyone, starting at the top,” Peskin said in an email. “We’ll definitely be examining staffing levels at our June hearing, but even more we’ll be looking at the culture of the department’s management that has led to a severe retention crisis, as well as a lawsuit.”

“It’s not just about new staff – it’s also about what’s not working at every level,” he added.

Under the executive directive, a “911 Response Time Improvement Team” that includes the heads of DEM and fire and police departments will oversee the improvements and craft a long-term plan by Sept. 30.

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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