Over and over, Dallas leaders have said theyâre fixing a problem that reaches into every living room in the city: an inadequate and unreliable 911 system.
In saying so, officials including Police Chief David Brown insist that recent high-profile problems â" unanswered 911 calls as a house burned in July, a woman murdered while on the line with 911 in August â" have nothing to do with staffing issues.
But interviews with current and former 911 call center employees, as well as available city records, show that the call center has been chronically understaffed for years and experts say the patchwork solutions put in place by the Police Department have their own pitfalls.
Exhausted 911 operators are scrambling to help callers who are greeted at peak times with recorded messages telling them to wait for the next available operator. Pleas to fill open positions have gone unheeded, and supervisors often order employees to work overtime.
Dallas officials say the city is authorized to have 90 workers in the communications section, but there are 64 positions filled, plus seven more call takers in training.
âThey need to hire a bunch,â said Joe Kay, a retired Dallas Fire-Rescue deputy chief who supervised 911 operations for several years. âI would have never guessed it to be that low.â
The Dallas Morning News interviewed several current and former 911 call center employees who spoke on the condition that their names not be published because they work for or still have associations with the city. Most fear retaliation if their names are revealed.
âThe staffing was just terrible,â said a former Dallas 911 call taker who left last year. âWhen you consider the amount of people in Dallas compared to the amount of call takers that they have, itâs kind of scary because itâs a huge city.â
Itâs a recipe for crisis that experts say could imperil the lives of officers and the public.
âIt becomes a self-perpetuating cycle,â said Charles Cullen, past president of the California chapter of the National Emergency Number Association. âIf they are coming in most of their days off or having to work long hours when theyâre there, eventually you get a burnout factor where people will leave and there are other opportunities because there are other centers that always are hiring.â
Brown declined an interview request for this story. He said in an email that âIt is my goal to ensure adequate staffing levels within the Communications Section are being met. The overall objective is that staffing levels meet the goal of answering each call in a timely manner.â
City leaders were briefed this past week on plans to pour roughly $2.7 million into 911 upgrades and support for police and fire call center operations in next yearâs budget.
Brown also is sending 24 officers who had other âlight dutyâ assignments to work as call takers until staffing is increased through new hires. The unprecedented move includes two weeks of training, which is far less than normal.
Experts say those moves may be a step in the right direction, but a long-term fix will take time, in part because permanent call takers must go through months of training and supervision before they are cleared to work on their own â" if they make it that far.
The first of two recent public 911 controversies flared up during a house fire in the early morning hours of July 4. Numerous 911 callers reportedly heard recorded messages telling them to stay on the line for the next available operator.
Thirteen call takers were working. The department had planned on 16 because of the holiday, but three called in sick.
No one was injured in the blaze, which led to calls from city leaders for improved technology at 911.
âStaffing is not the issue,â Brown said after the fire. âThe issue is whether or not we can pursue technological changes.â
âYou canât ever staff for the total peak,â Mayor Mike Rawlings said about the same time. âThat just doesnât happen in any business.â
Last month, as police say Deanna Cookâs abusive ex-husband fatally attacked her in her home, she called 911. Cook was heard choking and pleading for her life, but a 911 call taker did not pass critical details about the call on to dispatchers. Officers who got to the scene 50 minutes after the call left when no one answered the door.
Cookâs family members found her dead body at the southern Dallas home two days later. Her ex-husband, Delvecchio Patrick, was arrested on a murder charge.
When asked last week by a WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reporter whether there are staffing problems at the center, the chief said, âAbsolutely not.â
No easy formula
Assessing whether a 911 call center is adequately staffed is not a simple task, in part because experts say there is no surefire formula. Among the factors are overall call volume, population size, overtime usage, crime trends and what other responsibilities call takers have.
In Dallas, the Police Department runs the 911 center, in the basement of City Hall. Mostly civilian call takers, who communicate with the public, work on one side. Emergency dispatchers, who deal with the officers, work on the other. They mostly communicate by computerized messaging.
The supervisors are a mix of sworn and civilian personnel.
Citing homeland security concerns, Dallas city attorneys are fighting open records requests filed by The News seeking more detailed staffing information. But a review of records The News could obtain indicates the staffing was less than it was a few years ago.
A 2009 police roster lists 72 call takers and nine trainees. That number fell by 2011 to 59 call takers and nine trainees, another roster showed.
In 2011, the city answered 1.9 million calls. This year, the city is on pace to pass that total.
By comparison, the smaller Austin Police Department has more call takers than Dallas and roughly half the call load. Their call load includes nonemergency calls. The department employs 86 full-time call takers, plus seven who work 20 to 30 hours a week.
Fort Worthâs 2011 call volume was about 1.2 million at a call center that employs 52 call takers handling emergency and nonemergency calls.
A 2005 national study on staffing and retention by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Professionals found that the average annual call volume per employee for large 911 centers was 12,000 and ranged from 6,000 to 22,000. That includes supervisors and trainees.
Based on available statistics, Dallas appears to be past the high end of that range.
First Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, Brownâs boss, said, âThere has been a challenge of continually refreshing and getting closer to our authorized staffing level.â
Gonzalez said that while itâs not ideal, the city has addressed the problem through overtime.
Thatâs risky, experts say. Routinely mandating overtime leads to call takers âmaking mistakes because theyâre tired and theyâre there all the time and they lose their edge,â Cullen said.
A workbook created for public safety agencies released with the 2005 study advises 911 managers, âDo not plan for overtime as part of standard operating procedures; make it the exception rather than the rule.â
The study notes that âexcessive overtime requirements that result in loss of control over personal time contribute more to employee âburnoutâ than the emotionally demanding nature of the job.â
Thatâs precisely what some say is happening in Dallas.
âPeople were getting denied [days off] for things like their kidâs graduation and baby showers â" like their own baby showers,â the former employee said.
Employees who canât get personal time off through normal channels resorted to calling in sick, particularly on shifts and during events when their services are needed most.
âThere was a lot of absenteeism,â a recently retired call taker said. âA lot of times like on game nights, basketball, football, things like that. There was a lot of absenteeism on holiday weekends, on payday nights â¦ that made it harder on everybody else.â
Similar problems continued in recent weeks. On one Sunday overnight shift more than a week after Cookâs death, at one point only four call takers were at work. One worker said a typical Sunday overnight shift is staffed with at least 10 people.
The next morning, Aug. 27, seven operators were on duty as the 911 center was flooded with calls about an apartment fire.
After those two shifts, commanders issued orders that the deputy chief in charge of the call center be notified for each shift regarding âhow many 911 operators we have, how many called in sick, how many were mandated, and total number for the shift,â according to an email obtained by The News.
âOn the weekends, he will call up here for the information so please have it ready for him,â the email said. âWe will call in as many as we need to on OT to get us sufficient call takers.â
The demands are taking a toll.
âThe people are so tired that thereâs only a core few that will work pretty much any time you ask them,â a 911 call center employee said. âThe rest of them are just so burned out that when you ask them, they will say, âI donât want any overtime. I am sick of this. I canât sit here 16 hours a day anymore.ââ
Another current employee expressed concerns about some staff members being involuntarily transferred into call-taking positions, which require precision and dedication.
âSome of them are not fit to answer calls,â the employee said. âYou have to be sharp, youâve got to be up, ready, every call has to be urgent.â
Technology at the center is also behind. Some computers are prone to freezing and have limited ability to search for important information. In some cases, it is difficult for call takers to hear the callers.
âYou would learn what problems which desk had and you would try to sit at the same one all the time,â the retiree said.
The Police Department is also known to rotate police supervisors in and out of the communications division after relatively short tenures. At least three lieutenants have overseen the 911 call enter over the past year. That supervisor typically worked a day shift but was responsible for overseeing the call centerâs operations around the clock.
A civilian manager who was in the position for years, Kimberley Cole, wrote repeated memos asking for jobs to be filled, a current 911 center employee said. It appears that hiring didnât keep pace with attrition.
Cole declined to comment for this story. She has been stripped of managerial control of the call center.
In the days after Cookâs bungled 911 call, the department transferred the captain over the communications section to the auto pound, although Brown has said the move was unrelated to the incident. The department also transferred his boss, Deputy Chief Zackary Belton, to another division.
City officials point to statistical averages as evidence that the 911 center generally performs well. Calls are answered at an average of four seconds, officials said. Itâs unclear if that calculation includes a recorded message that callers sometimes get, advising them to stand by for an operator.
Talking points sent by Gonzalez to Dallas City Council members in anticipation of a critical television news story in July said that in 2012, to that point, âno one has waited longer than 4 minutes 48 secondsâ for a telephone to be answered at the 911 center.
The city says overall police response time is six minutes for emergencies and 12 minutes for urgent calls, both of which meet or exceed their goals.
But response time is often not the best indicator in mishandled calls. The police response may be only as good as the information provided by call takers and conveyed through dispatchers, often based on the priority placed on the call.
No vacancies have gone unfilled due to millions of dollars in budget cuts in recent years, officials said. Like most city employees, however, 911 call takers would have been subject to pay cuts and furlough days in each of the past four fiscal years.
âBy the time I left I was almost back to my starting pay,â said the former call taker who left last year. âItâs a really stressful job, and it takes a certain kind of person to do it and in order to get those people you have to pay them.â
City officials say turnover of 911 call takers is about 20 percent annually over the past three years and that, on average, their pay is about 94 percent of the market rate. The listed starting salary on a hiring notice posted this past week is $14.71 an hour.
Brown and other city leaders have promised to continue to study the issues. But they rebuff the suggestion that mismanagement or systemic failures have anything to do with recent tragedies and reactive steps that followed.
âWeâre always looking at improving,â Brown told WFAA-TV. âImproving doesnât mean thereâs issues. Improving means you always can do better.â
911 call center changes
In the wake of concerns regarding operation of the Dallas Police Departmentâs 911 communications center, the department recently made a number of changes:
ImplementedÂ two new 911 call classifications that put the highest level of priority on major disturbance calls in which there is a threat of serious bodily injury or death.
Transferred 24 light-duty officers to the 911 center, where they will be trained for two weeks and then work as call takers.
Transferred seven sergeants to the 911 center to work as additional supervisors.
Suspended and transferred a call taker who answered an August 911 call from Deanna Cook, who was being slain while on the line but did not get an urgent response from police. Another call taker was fired after she answered a later call from Cookâs concerned relatives and declined to immediately send officers to help.
Doubled the number of 911 phone lines capable of playing aÂ recorded message in the event that a 911 call taker is not immediately available.
Decreased the length of the recording instructing callers not to hang up from 30Â seconds to 15 seconds.
Reinforced training for 911 call takers and police dispatchers to ensure they use the same terminology and procedures.
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research