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City’s 911 call center suffering from high turnover rate, staff burnout

Thursday, July 14, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A lack of proper staffing may be contributing to a 25 percent turnover rate at the City of Austin’s 911 call center. According to Austin Police Department emergency communications manager Marcia Brooks, the amount of overtime forced on call center staffers increases problems “with burnout and turnover rates.”


“If you are constantly using overtime to supplement the needs of the organization, then…in an already stressful job—you are going to increase that stress level, and, in turn, the burnout,” she said.


Brooks’ statements came as she presented a report on the shortages at the city’s 911 call center to members of Austin’s Public Safety Commission. That panel has highlighted the fact that the call center has not hired additional staff in the past 10 years.


Commission Vice Chair Mike Levy asked Brooks if she could compare the number of calls that came into the center 10 years ago to the volume that her staff experiences today. Brooks couldn’t offer him the hard numbers.


“I know it was significantly less than what we see today,” she said.


Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale took a direct tack. “Do we need more staff, or are we back-filling with overtime?” he asked.


That’s when Brooks addressed the turnover rate.


“Where we experience, like 25 percent turnover, you’re constantly training and re-training,” she said. “A seasoned employee is going to be much better at responding to a 911 call than a brand new person. So if you can maintain that stability, that’s a better thing for everyone involved.”


Lauderdale tried to draw a direct connection between the staffing situation at the call centers and a decline in 911 responsiveness. “So I’m correct in inferring, then, that we have had some sort of a service degradation today as compared to 10 years ago?” he asked.


Brooks was coy. “We’ve managed to gain some efficiencies by pulling from other areas, and supplementing with grant positions as well as temporaries,” she said. “We’ve also spent more on overtime than we did 10 years ago.”


Brooks suggested that 911 had been able to “maintain a lot of those performance levels.”


“That’s the trade-off,” she said. “The increase in those (overtime) areas in order to not have performance negatively impacted at all.”


Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo defended his department’s use of overtime at the 911 call center. “By strategic use of overtime … we can target peak periods,” he said.


Acevedo also suggested that 911 staff welcomes the additional income. “A lot of the operators like having overtime because it helps them meet their needs at home,” he said.


“It can be burning out some operators but if you talk to all the folks, I’m certain that it’s welcome,” he said later. Acevedo added, “You always worry about employee wellness with burnout,” and pointed to the police department’s wellness program – to which some members of the call center belong.


Acevedo turned to Austin 911’s performance—a subject of intense media scrutiny this week. “We do meet – exceed – national standards when it comes to 911 calls,” he said.

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