Oakland fire dispatchers challenged by staffing shortage, increasing calls

Hundreds of 911 calls are flooding Oakland fire dispatchers every day, as they deal with a staffing shortage and increasing call volume.

The Oakland Fire Department Communications Dispatch Center fields more than 300 calls a day for everything from medical emergencies, mental health crises, and car crashes, to massive fires and increasing violent crimes across the city.

"We are the first, first responders," said 16-year veteran dispatcher and supervisor Bakia Haywood. "We are the ones that pick up the phone. We are the ones that are trying to calm the callers before the firefighters or the police or paramedics get there."

Whenever help is immediately needed, this 911 center is ground zero, constantly coordinating crews and resources when seconds count.

Right now, there are only 12 dispatchers that keep the center operating 24/7. But fire communications manager David Ebarle said there should be 20 people working to answer the calls.

"I leave in the afternoons and say goodbye and the same dispatchers that I said goodbye to have beat me in the next morning and are working a shift," he said. "That breaks my heart."

In many instances, dispatchers said they'll work an eight-hour shift only to be asked to work another eight hours, while taking calls and staring at a series of screens.

Oakland Fire Department is actively recruiting and working to hire new dispatchers who could make up to $100,000 base salary. Dispatching supervisors say candidates must work well under stress, have the ability to multitask, and communicate effectively.

"It is taxing and it does take its toll," Ebarle said. "It’s like any well-orchestrated ballet – it’s a dance."

Since the pandemic, the fire dispatch center has seen a 20% spike in calls. In recent weeks, there has been a string of shootings and large fires keeping dispatchers very busy and on alert.

"They’re truly talented emergency response professionals," said Chief Reginald Freeman. "Not only are they answering multiple calls from the citizens and the residents calling in the actual emergency, but they’re actually dispatching personnel to the scene. At the same time, they’re also calling in mutual aid."

That was the case during a four-alarm fire between I-580 and Quigley Street last Friday. It started in vegetation and quickly spread to nearby homes. While the cause is still under investigation, the massive response including 80 firefighters required organized and quick coordination.

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"It was chaotic. The phones were ringing off the hook," Haywood said. "The radio was off the hook. We had three radio channels going."

Despite staffing shortcomings, the small yet mighty group of dispatchers is doing what it can to make sure no calls for service go unanswered. They’re the unsung heroes behind the scenes dedicated and committed in service to the community.

"We never really know what our day is going to be," Haywood said. "It kind of toys with you mentally as a dispatcher so you try not to bring that stuff home."

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BrooksKTVU