Dis­patch re­sponse im­proves slightly

But 911 sys­tem short of stan­dard

San Francisco Chronicle - - BAY AREA - HEATHER KNIGHT

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.

San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

For­mer S.F. Su­per­vi­sor John Ava­los de­cries 911 busy sig­nals, which he heard re­peat­edly when he called.

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