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Public safety panel to seek at least 10 additional 911 operators

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The city’s Public Safety Commission will recommend that the City Council approve 10 more 911 operators for the city’s emergency communications center. That suggestion, which will come in the form of a memo from commission chair Michael Lauderdale, will also ask that the Council be ready respond to the findings of an operational study of the center with more staffing above that figure.


The move comes as the emergency call center faces an increasing amount of public scrutiny. Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Sean Mannix told commissioners Monday that the study had been fast-tracked. “This particular staff inspection has been moved to the front of the list,” he said. “It is the priority of our inspections unit.”


Commission Vice Chair Mike Levy did his best to persuade Mannix to offer his input on the perceived staffing need. Mannix didn’t bite.


“It’s difficult for the department to weigh in on a number like 10, without having done our due diligence,” he said, referring to the study.


In July, the Austin Police Department’s emergency communications manager Marcia Brooks told the commission that too much overtime had brought a 25 percent turnover rate to her division (See In Fact Daily, July 14, 2011). The issue has garnered a host of media attention. This includes a spotlight on the fact that some 911 callers have been placed on hold.


Commissioner Kim Rossmo, a criminologist, worried that the request for 10 operators was somewhat premature, considering the ongoing APD study. Levy disagreed.


“We’ve heard over and over and over again that too many people are staying on hold, there’s too much burnout, we don’t have enough experienced people,” he said. “I think we have to come up with the minimal recommendation.”


Levy also suggested that the 911 operator problem predates the commission. He noted that he remembers the issue “going back 10 years to the old public safety task force maybe.”


After the hearing, Mannix told In Fact Daily that APD has conducted “periodic evaluations” of each of their units since roughly 2000. “Because there’s been more discussion about 911 staffing and the communications center in general, we just moved that staff inspection up in line.”


When asked about Levy’s suggestion that the issue was an older one, he responded that “staffing is an issue in every part of the department.


“Right now, it’s an isolated topic as it relates to the commission talking specifically about the 911 call center, or 911 in general,” he added. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not short in other areas of the department as well.”


Mannix summed up the issue. “It’s not that it was ever off of our radar screen – we know that we have staffing issues in different parts of the department – but we’re doing the best we can with the competing resources that all city departments are struggling with right now,” he added.


He added that any additional 911 center hires would be an additional request from the council.


Mannix expects to be back before the commission at its October meeting to present the results of the 911 study.

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