911 dispatchers in SF tell supervisors they're overworked, understaffed

911 dispatchers in San Francisco say they are overworked and stressed out on the job because of a staffing crisis, which they claim is putting the public's safety in danger.

Today they asked the government and audit oversight committee for help.

By national standards, dispatchers are supposed to respond within 10 seconds, right now San Francisco is only meeting that goal by 75 percent.

Burt Wilson, a 911 Dispatcher says he's heard people have been put on hold for as many as five to eight minutes. In a job where every second counts, waiting even one extra minute is simply too long.

Robert Smuts, the deputy director of the city's Division of Emergency Communications, told the committee that since January 2012, the city's staff of fully trained dispatchers has gone from 149 to 117, while the workload has increased significantly over that time.

Smuts said the department estimates that 163 dispatchers is necessary to achieve the service standard of answering 90 percent of 911 calls in 10 seconds or less. 

This past January, the Department of Emergency Management says a power outage due to human error knocked 911 offline for more than 10 minutes.

"We just need to roll down our windows - in case it is a [inaudible] and flag them down for help. 911 is down," says a dispatcher from a tape KTVU obtained dated January 5, 2017.

Unbelievably, the dispatcher tells emergency crews over the radio to roll down their windows and flag people down for help.

DEM tells KTVU it has handled the problem.

But dispatchers say it's indicative of a myriad of troubles they face on a daily basis.

"We're extremely short-staffed, we have been for the past several years," Natalie Elicetche, a 911 dispatcher and Vice President of SEIU 911 dispatchers.

Many San Francisco dispatchers say they frequently pull 16 hour shifts.

At today's meeting, one worker explained, "My worst call has been from a parent coming home to find their child has hung themselves." She went on to say how she was given no downtime to regroup and was forced to immediately take the next call.

"I've been here 15 years and this is probably the worst it's ever been," said Elicetche.

"Call volume went up 37 percent in the last few years," explained Smuts. "At the same time, we had an increase in attrition, people retiring in particular, but leaving for other reasons."

One of those reasons? Dispatchers are getting lured to other Bay Area agencies where the pay is better and the work is less.

"For the amount of overtime these people are working which is inhumane, they should not be getting time and a half they should be getting double time," said Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Peskin pointed out that working such long days leaves little time for people to drive home and sleep before they have to be back at work, arguing fatigue could jeopardize how 911 calls are handled.

"I can't believe we haven't realized this is an emergency," Peskin said.

That would mean a reclassification as public safety workers. Currently dispatchers are considered clerks.

Meanwhile, the city partnered with Google to analyze why the volume of 911 calls have increased. While it's partly attributable to the city's growing population, dispatchers have been receiving more non-emergency
calls at 911, including people calling to complain about homeless people, Smuts said.

Accidental dials are also on the rise, possibly because of changes in cellphone technology.

In the meantime, DEM has hired more people but training takes about a year to complete. Dispatchers hope relief comes soon, they say the clock is literally ticking.