911 emergency center sweatshop

If there is anything the public does not need at its San Francisco emergency dispatch center that handles thousands of desperate 911 calls around the clock, it is the sort of “downward spiral” of morale, forced overtime, marathon shifts and restricted off-time commonly associated with sweatshops.

The Emergency Communications Division has approximately one-third fewer personnel than authorized by The City; 187 dispatchers and emergency call takers are budgeted but only 115 are actively on staff. This means dispatchers are routinely ordered to work “50 to 60 hours a week” and have stringent restrictions on vacation and break time, according to the emergency communications employees’ unofficial Web site, www.sf911.net.

A required minimum number of dispatchers must be on duty every shift 24 hours daily, which triggers mandatory levels of overtime that cost The City some $1.5 million per year. The dispatchers’ basic shift is 10 high-intensity hours of coordinating appropriate responses to San Francisco’s most stressful situations, as the emergency communications center receives more than 4,000 police, fire and medical calls every day.

What makes this system overload especially frustrating is that it is far from being a sudden development. The Examiner actually wrote April 9 that “San Francisco is havinga problem handling the volume of 911 calls … due to a shortage of call takers and dispatchers.” And the gap between the number of authorized positions and actual personnel on the job is essentially the same as 10 months ago.

It could not be more evident that the bottleneck in bringing more emergency dispatchers onto the job is the cumbersome and absurdly time-consuming hiring process, which is common to almost all city jobs and makes the applicant wait months before receiving an employment offer — by which time many of the best prospects have already found work in the private sector.

There is actually no shortage of applicants for these dispatcher jobs paying $54,314 to $66,014, and as many as 40 trainees are hired each year. But two-thirds of these new hires either resign or flunk out before completing training.

Ways should be found to speed up and widen the process to avoid the current unreasonable delays. The Department of Emergency Communications has been tinkering with streamlining the training, such as scheduling training classes every two months instead of quarterly. But much more needs to be done, such as potentially enlarging the trainee pool by allowing all applicants to take the written exam. Presently applicants are not tested if their prior job experience does not meet vaguely defined standards.

The City’s nerve center for sending help to our neighbors in trouble cannot continue to be operated like a sweatshop. The job of San Francisco police-fire-paramedic dispatcher is too important and too demanding to allow the unnecessary stress of debilitating overtime to interfere with their judgment during life-and-death 911 situations.

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