City dispatchers call for relief

Working conditions and morale for San Francisco emergency dispatchers are in an “unchecked downward spiral” due to low staffing levels at the Department of Emergency Communications, according to a grievance written by an anonymous group of 911 call takers.

The City is budgeted for 187 dispatchers and emergency call takers, but about 30 of the positions are unfilled, said Lisa Hoffmann, who directs The City’s Department of Emergency Communications. There are only 115 on staff, with several employees on long-term disability or maternity leave.

Since the emergency dispatch center cannot reduce service or staffing levels to take more than 4,000 calls a day, employees have to work overtime, Hoffmann said.

“It’s unfortunate that in a 24-7 business, this is a necessary evil,” she said.

Management at the communications department, according to an anonymous grievance posted by a group of employees, is forcing dispatchers to work “50 to 60 hours a week,” while restricting vacation and break time. The complaint was posted on the Web site www.sf911.net and sent recently to the Board of Supervisors.

“Our management has for years and with increasing audacity failed in their duty to provide adequate emergency communications operations staffing,” the grievance states. “And we, the San Francisco 911 dispatchers, must compensate for this failure every day. We have no individual choice but to endure. We cannot strike, walkout or stage a sickout, or take any other action that would put the community at risk.”

Hoffmann, who took on the deputy director job in August, acknowledged the complaint but doubted its validity. “I’m a little bit frustrated because I have an open door policy,” she said. “It could be a small group of disgruntled employees, but since it’s anonymous, it’s very difficult to respond.”

Part of the problem with staffing the emergency call center lies in the rigorous hiring process, which involves academy lessons and on-the-job training, which add up to nine months to a year before a new hire starts taking calls. The civilian position also comes with a background check similar to that of a new police officer. Police, however, start off with higher salaries and have better retirement benefits. According to a recent newspaper ad for the job, dispatchers make between $54,314 to $66,014. An entry-level police officer starts at $70,733.

To correct the problem, the department is beginning to offer training sessions every two months instead of only four times a year, said Hoffmann, who is also president of the California chapter of the National Emergency Number Association.

Attempts to contact the party responsible for the grievance were unsuccessful.

bbegin@examiner.com

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