OAKLAND, Calif. (Brooks Jarosz/KTVU) - Calls to 911 in the Bay Area’s biggest cities are missing the mark when it comes to emergency answer times, according to state data.
California has a state standard requiring cities to answer 95 percent of all 911 calls within 15 seconds. Records show numerous cities are well below the standard.
2 Investigates found dispatch delays because of staffing shortages, increased call volume and pocket dials or prank calls.
“It’s just take call, after call, after call, after call until they’re gone,” an Oakland dispatcher who didn’t want to be identified said. “Once you start becoming fatigued, there’s a potential for errors…it’s a fight.”
Oakland Police dispatchers have been dealing with staff shortages for more than a year, requiring mandatory overtime. Sometimes, dispatchers said they’re each working an extra dozen or more hours a week.
“We are critically short-staffed,” Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick admitted. “We did get 403 applications so we’re delighted with that but we have to process them and get them in.”
Since 2016, only 82 percent of calls to Oakland Police were answered within 15 seconds. 2 Investigates uncovered an email where dispatchers were praised for answering 77 percent of the calls in 15 seconds on a day in January claiming it was a “good job,” considering the staffing restraints.
Oakland’s 2016 Annual Report states the 911 center is still down by 16 dispatchers, while wireless calls, sick leave and resignations are up.
“We’re not where we want to be at all,” Chief Kirkpatrick said. “We’re missing those standardized goals.”
Oakland is similarly positioned as San Francisco, where only 79 percent of calls have been answered in 15 seconds since 2016.
In April, at St. Boniface Church, the Gubbio Project was operating its “sacred sleep program” when one of their homeless guests collapsed in the back of the church. Volunteers describe four of them calling 911 only to be put on hold or have the line keep ringing and ringing for several minutes.
“I would get frustrated and redial,” volunteer Terry Sedik said. “It really shook me…it felt like an eternity.”
William Ellis, 66, was a homeless veteran with no family who went into cardiac arrest. Once the volunteers got through to a dispatcher, they describe medics quickly responding. However, Ellis didn’t make it and was taken off life-support days later.
“Our research showed in San Francisco, there are a significant number of calls that are pocket dials,” Police Chief Bill Scott said. “They end up clogging the 911 system.”
While it’s unknown if that was the reason emergency calls about Ellis went unanswered for a period of time, it is an example of why emergency managers are looking at increasing staff and improving the 911 system.
For years, there has been a call for more dispatchers in San Francisco with records showing the city had 123 fulltime dispatchers last year and 125 this year with an additional 32 in training. By next year, the city targets needing at least 148 dispatchers, a city email to 2 Investigates explained.
San Jose is also not making the grade, only answering 84 percent of calls within the 15 second state standard.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Chief Eddie Garcia said. “With that comes additional resources to answer those calls.”
San Jose has set aside $550,000 to recruit candidates, including dispatchers to provide some relief to the current staff and improve the answer times.
2 Investigates went to the California Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento to ask about the standard and what it’s doing to make sure cities are picking up emergency calls quickly and within 15 seconds.
“Our goal is to work with them to meet the standard,” Cal OES 911 Branch Manager Budge Currier said. “We’re doing well and we can do better.”
Cal OES oversees all 911 answer points in the state. Officials there are confident 95 percent of calls answered within 15 seconds is an achievable standard for California.
“It could be equipment related, it could be staffing related and so we start with that and most of them appreciate the help we offer,” Currier said. “We’re coming in alongside them to help them through this process.”
Currier added, “We wouldn’t want you to have a busy signal when you call for help.”