Dispatch response improves slightly
But 911 system short of standard
Former San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos was driving on the Bay Bridge at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 29 when he spotted an alarming sight: a disheveled-looking man walking on the north side of the bridge carrying a thick chain with some kind of ball at the end of it.
“It was clearly something that was going to be swung around,” recalled Avalos, who was driving home to the city from his new union job in Emeryville. “I was afraid. Is he going to hang himself or jump off the bridge or attack a car with that?”
Avalos called 911 (handsfree, he swears!) but heard a busy signal. He tried twice more but continued to get a busy signal. So at 6:33, he pulled over to send a tweet to the city’s 911 call center describing what he’d seen.
More than a half hour later, at 7:10 p.m., the account for the 911 call center responded:
emergency calls from the Bay Bridge go to the California Highway Patrol, not to the city’s 911 call center, it informed him. The CHP’s Twitter account was tagged, but it didn’t respond. Avalos had no idea what happened to the chain wielding man.
The experience was especially irksome because it was all too familiar. A few months before, Avalos was driving on San Jose Avenue in the city on a Sunday afternoon when he saw a car stalled on the J Church Muni tracks. A person was inside. He called 911 and couldn’t believe how long it took for somebody to answer. The Department of Emergency Services confirmed it took nearly a minute and a half for a dispatcher to answer.
“I was stunned how long it took,” Avalos said. “It’s been a problem for a number of years. To me, it really shows that people are asleep at the wheel on this very, very critical need.”
The former politician’s experiences are just two more examples of a confused, understaffed emergency response system in a rich, hightech city that should be able to do better.
Three-and-a-half months after Mayor Ed Lee issued an executive order demanding major change at the troubled 911 call center, call response times have improved. Dispatchers were answering just 75 percent of incoming calls within 10 seconds in the spring. Now, they’re up to 82 percent. But the center’s rate is still short of the national standard of 90 percent, a rate it hasn’t met since 2012.
The rising response rate is great. But it’s clear there’s still a long way to go.
Managers at the 911 call center continue to emphasize bringing on new recruits to get the understaffed department functioning again, and vow that the 90 percent goal will be reached by December. Lee has also tried to reduce the call volume by having 911 dispatchers divert calls about car break-ins that are not in progress to the 311 call center instead.
But there’s still nothing significant being done to retain the dispatchers already on staff, many of whom are suffering from low morale and burnout from working mandatory overtime shifts. More keep quitting, reducing the impact new recruits can have on response times.
Dispatchers make between $84,032 and $102,154 annually depending on length of service, but so far, that level of pay hasn’t been enough to retain a stable, satisfied staff.
The dispatchers have been meeting with the city’s human resources team since Lee’s May directive to come up with solutions to the staffing crisis. So far, it sounds like they’ve been as fruitful as Avalos’ calls from the Bay Bridge.
At an Aug. 30 meeting, the dispatchers asked for an immediate 5 percent raise, double overtime instead of time-and-a-half for mandatory extra hours, and a public safety retirement plan that would allow them to retire earlier and receive a higher percentage of their salary as pensions.
Along with firefighters, police officers and sheriff ’s deputies, the city gives those beefedup pensions to probation officers, district attorney’s investigators and juvenile court counselors. It remains unclear why those latter three are deemed worthy of the pensions while the dispatchers, literally the first of the city’s first responders, are not.
Burt Wilson, president of the dispatchers union, said all of the dispatchers’ proposals were rejected by the city — including the public safety pension.
Instead, he said, the city offered a 3.5 percent bonus in August 2018 and another 3.5 percent bonus in August 2019. Neither would be permanently built into the salaries, and the dispatchers would have to agree to stop talking to us pesky journalists about the public safety idea to get the bonuses.
Wilson called the bonuses “hush money” and said his members promptly rejected the proposal. The city upped its offer to 5 percent bonuses, and the dispatchers countered with 6 percent actual raises each year. The sides are now at a stalemate, Wilson said.
He added that the city’s team said it would fight a potential ballot measure asking voters to give dispatchers a public safety pension. He said the city priced out the initial cost of reclassifying the dispatchers at $2 million a year, though it would likely rise after that.
Still, in a city with an eye-popping $10 billion budget, that doesn’t seem like an amount worth dismissing out of hand if it meant emergency calls would be answered more promptly.
Mayor Lee told me he agrees that “retention is a major challenge, and people are getting burned out,” but he refused to talk about negotiations or the public safety proposal.
“We’re in hard-nosed negotiations,” he said. “I’m not going to do that in the public and in the press . ... We’re exchanging some good ideas, and we hope to have a package to agree on soon.”
Susan Gard, chief of policy for the Human Resources department, agreed that negotiations are “hallowed ground” and wouldn’t confirm Wilson’s account of the proposals. She said increased compensation is a possibility, but that the public safety retirement plan is not.
“We may be able to do some other things to improve recruitment and retention,” she wrote in an email. One idea: providing a grant to purchase more treadmill desks “so they are able to move while at their stations.”
Told of the treadmill desks via text, Wilson replied: “Lol.” That was my initial response, too.
The system’s shortcomings become painfully clear on days like Sept. 1, when the temperature hit an all-time high of 106 degrees. Wilson said that at one point in the sweltering midafternoon, 45 calls to 911 were ringing with no immediate answer because all dispatchers were on other calls.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin has called a hearing for Wednesday to discuss the emergency response during the heat wave. He said he thinks the 911 call center performed well, given the huge call volume. But he wonders why the Department of Emergency Management, which includes the call center, didn’t activate its special response to coordinate a variety of city agencies until 5 p.m. — long after the heat wave had taken hold.
Ensuring that the 911 call center is fully staffed and answering calls quickly is “the most fundamental thing” city government can do, Peskin said. Short staffing and poor response times have been well-known at City Hall for years, he said, but only now is some improvement being made.
“The blinking red light has been on the dashboard for a number of years,” Peskin said. “It’s a systematic government failure — there’s no question about that. The city could have been a lot more aggressive, but slowly but surely we’re getting there.”
Avalos, who termed out of his supervisor post in January after eight years, said 911 call center woes were discussed regularly when he was on the board. He’s not sure why they haven’t been resolved.
“Where is the city putting its money if it can’t do that simple thing?” he asked. “I’m very afraid that I’m going to need emergency services for myself or someone that I love, and it’s not going to be available as quickly as I would need it. That is really scary.”
As for that chain wielding man on the Bay Bridge, Avalos never got answers. But I finally did, about that and much more.
Calls made to 911 from freeways and bridges — even within San Francisco city limits — are supposed to be directed to the California Highway Patrol dispatch center in Vallejo. Calls made from Treasure Island proper, and all pieces of land within the city’s borders, even adjacent to freeways, are supposed to be directed to the city’s call center on Turk Street. It’s unclear whether this division works all of the time.
Officer Vu Williams, spokesman for the CHP, said 911 calls from other drivers on the bridge that night did reach the CHP dispatch center. It’s unclear why Avalos heard a busy signal three times. Both Williams and Francis Zamora, spokesman for the city’s Department of Emergency Management, said callers to their centers should not hear busy signals and should be put on hold if no one can pick up the phone.
Adding to the confusion is that the call center discovered that 911 calls made from cell phones on AT&T plans weren’t going through for about four hours the following day. Avalos uses an AT&T plan. If the two problems were linked, it could mean the city wasn’t aware of the AT&T problem until long after it started.
Zamora recommended that all city residents program this 10-digit number into their phones: (415) 553-8090. Dialing that number should always get you through to the Turk Street center, even if you’re near a freeway or on a bridge or your cell company isn’t processing 911 calls.
And the man on the bridge? The CHP did respond that evening and took him to San Francisco General Hospital’s psych ward.
Possible crisis averted. That time, anyway.
Former S.F. Supervisor John Avalos decries 911 busy signals, which he heard repeatedly when he called.