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APD Communications hard-pressed to handle calls

Monday, October 13, 2014 by Alex Dropkin

As the Austin metropolitan area population grows over the next couple of decades, officials say city services will be hard-pressed to keep up with the demand. But that future is now for Austin Police Department’s Emergency Communication Division, whose leaders say they are already falling behind.

Julie O’Brien, commander of the Emergency Communication Division, listed her division’s shortcomings to the Austin Public Safety Commission in an operational evaluation last week, citing staffing shortages, increased demands and unfulfilled budgetary needs.

“If it’s true that by 2040 we may be a city of 4 million people, there are going to be growing pains all over, and the Communications Division is going to have to be one of them,” O’Brien told commission members.

The Communication Division handles emergency as well as non-emergency 911 calls and has both call-takers and dispatchers. The division has 196 budgeted employees — 71 of whom are dispatchers. According to O’Brien, the division currently has 11 call-taker vacancies and 11 dispatcher vacancies.

But, she says, the division has very little money for recruiting and hiring, and like many police departments around the country, faces high turnover.

“You get a job with a lot of stress and a lot of pressure, working shift-work in a fast-paced environment. It gets tough to bring people in, and there’s a lot of competition right now in a good economy for these same folks,” O’Brien told the commission, mentioning changes in education requirements and licensing as hurdles for attracting new hires.

As of January 2014, a new Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards policy requires that police telecommunicators be licensed in the same manner as peace officers. O’Brien said that the new requirements are important, but put a lot of strain on the division.

Her first recommendation, in response to the increased demands and the important role her Communications Division staffers play in public safety, was that her employees be paid more than the $15 and $16 starting wages for call-takers and dispatchers, respectively.

O’Brien told the commission that the division’s immediate need, aside from hiring more staffers, is a “dedicated infrastructure rather than a borrowed one.”

Many of the division’s staffers are borrowed from other divisions within APD at any one time, including those handling media inquiries and public information requests. According to O’Brien, requests for copies of 911 recordings have exploded.

The Communications Division received 255 requests for 911 recordings per month during the three months before the Michael Morton Act — a bill signed in 2013 requiring prosecutors to give lawyers representing the accused any evidence that is relevant to the defense’s case — went into effect. Over this past three-month period, the division has received 1,362 requests a month.

Commission members had few questions for O’Brien, but did wonder if the structure of the Communication Division was a bit top-heavy.

Commission Chair Kim Rossmo also asked to see the increase in the city’s call volume per capita, but O’Brien did not have the numbers available at the meeting.

“I think it’s going to be important … that this be monitored to make sure there’s appropriate follow-through,” Rossmo said about the evaluation.


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