UPDATED Sept 23rd: with reaction from Public Safety Commissioner
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Difficult days at Austin’s 911 call center referred to by one call taker last winter as ‘desperate’ may be ending. That is if elected city leaders and budget makers continue to follow multi-year recommendations made in the completed version of an internal operational evaluation completed in April, that is only now being released publicly.
KXAN requested and received a copy of the 71-page review which is expected to be presented to Austin’s Public Safety Commission at its Oct. 6 meeting. Similar to a draft version KXAN obtained last winter, the final report spells out recommendations to augment staff and training, some of which city council members recently approved in this year’s budget, which begins Oct. 1.
The FY2015 budget adds $1.6M and 23 staff including: eight new call takers, nine new dispatchers and several support staff. City documents showed they could have also been paid for using existing funds within the police budget related to unspent dollars from attrition and unfilled vacancies department-wide. Now comes the challenge of recruiting, hiring and training the 23 full timers, a process that can take many weeks, Communications Division Cmdr. Julie O’Brien told KXAN last winter. Each also has to complete training courses the state began mandating last January.
UPDATE Oct 8th: O’Brien told the Oct 6th Public Safety Commission meeting she would add unfilled positions to next year’s budget request but turnover and overtime woes would continue.
The report O’Brien compiled recommends similar hiring numbers with additional positions in each of the next two years. It ends a dearth of real hiring at Austin’s 911 Emergency Communications Center going back several years – despite an increase in call volume and police radio traffic. This year, Austin 911 will receive more than 939,000 calls, the report predicts – a 16 percent increase from last year.
NEW: Public Safety Commissioner Mike Levy tells KXAN the approved hires are ‘dust in the wind’ and amount to about one call taker to the daily schedule. “What’s the real need?” Levy asked. Not what the report recommends, but the true number?” Levy has long been a critic of the lack of new 9-1-1 funding and maintains city managers are not willing to offer new money for call takers.
In previous years, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo admitted priorities included adding patrol officers to maintain minimum officer-to-resident ratios of two per 1,000, and forensic staff to deal with a backlog of criminal evidence cases. Funding for 911 was repeatedly left off the table despite internal pleas from civilian managers to hire as many as 30 call takers, internal emails to elected officials showed.
“The combination of a lower priority level for additional resources and visible outward success with static resources has hidden the fissures that have been slowly growing within the foundation of the current model of emergency service delivery,” O’Brien wrote in the report’s executive summary.
Division under Stress
Last February, KXAN revealed what was supposed to have been short-term plan to reduce call taker overtime by cutting back staff hours. Records show police executives were aware that would increase call hold times, but the pilot project was approved as long as the national standard of answering 90 percent of all calls in less than 10 seconds was upheld. From June 2013 through Oct. 30, the standards were met. Then came the Halloween flood which resulted in October being the only month out of the previous 24 where the 90 percent goal was not upheld. And in the four months the overtime plan was in place, records show call taker response times were already sliding closer and closer to the 90 percent mark.
After the October 2013 flood, all major city departments from Homeland Security and Emergency Management to Watershed Protection contributed ‘lessons learned’ reports to a compilation released in April known as the Halloween Flood After Action Report. At the time, KXAN reported recommendations from Austin Police were noticeably few in number. That prompted Acevedo to tell KXAN the police department’s own flood report was still being finalized.
If last Friday’s response to significant flooding is any indication, the call center may be transforming from the inside out, even before the new hires are made. The report supports ongoing training for emergency preparedness such as dealing with routing emergency calls to alternate call centers during a disaster, or handling unexpected spikes in call load, perhaps the most relevant recommendation for the future.
“The (Emergency Communications) Division is behind the times in this area,” O’Brien wrote in her final recommendations. “But it is beginning to align its thinking, planning and process in a more tactical way.”
The 911 center responded nearly twice as many calls than normal — 839 — from midnight to just before 8 a.m. on Friday. All but 5 percent were answered within 10 seconds. Those numbers peaked between 5-6 a.m. when 152 calls came in. Every one of those was answered and redirected right away. That response rate supersedes national standards.
Public Safety Commissioner Mike Levy suggests the 90% metric is the wrong thing to focus on. Instead he says the call center should showcase not only those callers – even if it’s a few — who were answered within 10 seconds, but those who waited 20 seconds, 40 seconds, one minute or more.
“The caller whose house is burning down or facing a burglar in the kitchen or whose daddy is having a heart attack does not want to wait,’ Levy told KXAN.
Still, Friday’s call center performance might have to do with a staffing strategy. Overnight Emergency Communications managers reported 16 call takers were on duty as scheduled. There were 15 on staff during the Halloween floods in 2013, but four of those were staffers who ended up working a mandatory double shift.
“(Friday morning Sept. 19) we did not hold over Call Takers or Dispatchers; it was unnecessary. We used regularly scheduled Call Takers staff to supplement any 911 staffing increases throughout the weather event. An OT solicitation was sent out to Dayshift Call Takers to come in early if interested; none responded. 1 Supervisor came in early to assist.”
It is accepted by most public safety observers the Halloween flood was a rare event – falling into that category of unexpected call load O’Brien writes about.