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Chief says city working hard to get more 911 employees

Wednesday, October 26, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Reporting to City Council Tuesday, Police Chief Joseph Chacon stressed the department’s commitment to returning the number of 911 call takers and police dispatcher staff to normal levels as soon as possible.

The city has attempted to address the vacancies, primarily through increasing wages. But headlines about callers being placed on hold during an emergency continue.

Chacon said currently callers average 2.5 minutes on hold after dialing 911. The industry best practice is to answer 90 percent of calls within 15 seconds, he said, adding that two of three calls answered by the city’s 911 operators are answered within 15 seconds.

As of Oct. 10, there were 49 vacancies among 911 call takers and 21 vacancies among police dispatchers, according to a statement from the city. The Austin Monitor reported in September that the city had 48 vacancies and 57 filled positions among 911 operators, plus 20 vacancies and 55 filled positions among dispatchers.

Chacon and City Manager Spencer Cronk stressed their commitment to increasing those numbers as rapidly as possible. But there is no fast and easy fix for this problem, which other cities, including Atlanta, Kansas City and Philadelphia are also experiencing.

Chacon outlined pay increases the department has instituted in order to attract more call takers and dispatchers. Entry level pay for call takers increased by 26 percent to $22.85/hour as of Sept. 25, while entry level pay for police dispatchers increased by 35 percent to $24.42/hour. He said the median pay for call takers and dispatchers exceeds the top quartile of the market.

Because the city has increased starting pay, some employees with long records of service are not getting as significant a pay increase as some of the newer employees. However, first responder call takers and dispatchers who started before May 22 are receiving a $3,000 retention bonus spread out over a year, starting on the 90th day of employment. The bonus has been approved for 2023 also.

The Human Resources Department is now recommending that pay increases for longtime employees be returned to what are called “zones,” so they are more fairly compensated. This change, which will lead to pay increases for some employees, will be reviewed by staff and may be implemented by the end of December, according to a city news release.

Human Resources Director Joya Hayes told Council, “The last two years have been a crisis … worldwide” for agencies and businesses trying to retain and recruit employees. Hayes said in addition to APD, “Every single department in the city of Austin will come to this table and tell you about this crisis.” She said her department needs to work harder to communicate with Council about “the realities of what we’re doing … we have done unprecedented work … in an attempt to be fair and equitable.”

Hayes said HR has introduced changes in the hiring process for 911 call takers and dispatchers in order to shorten the time period from application to hiring. Even though HR reports a steady increase in the number of applicants for the call center, the city has not been able to hire enough of them to fill all of the vacancies. (After being hired, employees are in training status for 15-17 weeks, so it may be premature to say how many vacancies will exist by the end of the year.)

Chacon also told Council about moving police sergeants into dispatch positions. In response to a question from Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, Chacon explained that the number of people who can be trained at one time is a limiting factor in adding new staff. Each recruit must pass a variety of tests and a psychological evaluation as well as a drug test and background check. This adds to the length of the hiring process.

Mandatory overtime at the 911 call center has been reduced in order to help employees deal with the stresses of the job. APD sergeants are being offered optional overtime if they come in on their days off to answer calls.

The city’s communications office is working with HR to develop a citywide recruitment campaign to promote job opportunities at the 911 call center and other areas with high vacancy rates.

Mayor Steve Adler revealed that he had offered suggestions to the chief about bringing on more staff, despite the fact that Council members are not supposed to reach out directly to city employees. Adler told Chacon he should make another report in November, either in person or written, to update Council on the department’s progress in recruiting 911 staff.

Anyone interested in applying for a job as a 911 call taker or police dispatcher may do so here.

Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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