Report: ‘Crisis’ on horizon at Austin 911 call center

AUSTIN (KXAN) – For the front-line professionals who respond to disasters when you call 911, their workplace is itself ripe for one. That’s according to one version of a new draft report evaluating the operations of Austin Police Department’s Emergency Communications Division.

Austin’s explosive population growth has increased 911 call volumes, up 14.8 percent since 2007 through last year, records show.

That growth combined with chronic staffing issues — mandatory overtime shifts for call takers and dispatchers, as well as a lack of ongoing training and staff support — has sustained a culture of continued sick days and turnover, the report obtained by KXAN suggests.

Those factors are a recipe for a ‘staffing crisis’ within two years, according to the police commander overseeing the city’s emergency call center who authored the document.

“This is a major problem. And the (city) manager’s staff has done nothing about it,” said veteran Public Safety Commissioner Mike Levy. “And it’s only gotten worse. (911) is one of the most critical functions of the city of Austin, if you care about public safety.”

Records show Austin 911 paid out nearly $1 million in overtime and for temporary workers this fiscal year. Some of the overtime was aimed at curbing the staff shortage problem due to scheduling issues or staff calling in sick.

In 2012, 28 call center workers took time off under the Family Medical Leave Act and cited personal medical reasons. Three of those 28 used the maximum 480 hours of leave the city allows.

By 2013, the number of 911 staff maxing out their medical leave rose to 10. That year 24 people claimed personal medical issues.

Numbers for 2014 show the trend continuing. Seven of 15 call center employees citing medical reasons each accrued at least 100 hours of medical-based leave.

Due to medical privacy laws there’s no easy way to know for sure if the FMLA medical leave related to psychological issues or some other physical medical problem.

How we got here

Austin-Travis County EMS overnightIn early 2014, Cmdr. Julie O’Brien was brought in to lead and assess the health of the division which was previously led by civilian managers. The report is her first read of the depths of the problems inside the call center.

For the last two fiscal years, other policing priorities have produced city budgets that have all but ignored the police communication division’s wish list for more bodies. That came after a 2011 audit found no real new hiring in the previous decade.

The civilian management’s team struggle under a lack of new city funding came to a controversial point in June 2013. On the police chief’s watch, staff carried out what was supposed to be a temporary plan to cut overtime spending by limiting the number of call takers.

KXAN first reported in the spring that had the effect of lowering call taker response times, while keeping them just above minimum national standards. The overtime plan was halted after five months after mistakenly continuing past an initial 60-day period, the chief admitted to KXAN in April.

The proposed staffing solution

Cmdr. O’Brien is now recommending:

• Phasing in new 911 call taking, dispatch, training and support staff over three years

• Paying employees more, classifying them as public safety workers (all have to be state licensed)

• Securing more temporary overtime while new staff are hired and trained.

There is also a plan to offer a stipend to existing staff who agree to train and support new hires in what can be a stressful job dealing with life and death scenarios. This was identified as a top budget need for this, and in future years.

O’Brien wrote the stipend is a bid to reduce creeping turnover rates, which currently stand at about 20 percent of call takers and  25 percent of dispatchers. She would also like to see all front-line staff receive training in emergency preparedness to better handle unplanned events like last October’s deadly flood.

The budget game

This coming budget year, one version of the draft report calls for spending $1.7 million to begin the proposed hiring of about two dozen 911 staff.

The current year’s total police communications budget is more than $13.7 million, from a total departmental budget topping $310 million, records show.

City staff say City Manager Mark Ott asked department heads this year to focus on ‘critical needs’ rather than listing unmet needs. City records show in FY13 and FY14 the managers of the Police Communications Division requested more than two dozen new positions for the 911 center.

Each year, police executives chose other needs such as bolstering staff at the overburdened forensics lab and patrol officers for Austin’s downtown sector.

In mid-April Chief Acevedo told KXAN Investigator Robert Maxwell, “I always want everything to be taken care of. Think about what’s going on in our community. It’s a balance – there isn’t a (bottomless) pot of money.”

This week staff in Art Acevedo’s office told KXAN the Chief is still reviewing the Communications report.  Police staff also said there was no clear date for when the draft recommendations would be finalized and forwarded to the City Manager’s Office for consideration in the FY2015 budget.

City departmental budget priority lists were due months ago for compilation by City Manager staff. The next opportunity for elected Council Members to publicly ask questions and review budget options is July 31st.

The City’s Public Safety Commission is also expected to talk police, fire and EMS budget recommendations at its June 2nd meeting, KXAN confirmed with its Chair, Kim Rossmo.

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