Berkeley fails to meet state guidelines for 911 emergency response, city auditor report finds

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The city of Berkeley paid nearly $1 million in overtime pay to compensate its 911 dispatchers in 2017, revealing gaps in Berkeley’s ability to meet state guidelines when responding to emergency calls, according to a recent report.

City Auditor Jenny Wong released the report with recommendations to address overworked staff in the Berkeley Police Department Public Safety Communications Center and to reduce expenses accrued for overtime pay due to understaffing. Wong’s report states that fatigued staff contributes to low workplace morale and may inhibit skills necessary for successful emergency response services.

“The 911 center is the first line of responders for emergencies in Berkeley,” Wong said in the report. “With predicted population growth, Berkeley will soon need even more resources to ensure all emergency calls are answered and dispatched in a timely manner.”

The communications center allows staff to potentially work 70 hours a week with shifts up to 15 hours long, and up to 60 hours of overtime during a two-week period. If supervisors do not have enough volunteers, dispatchers are scheduled to mandatory shifts.

The guidelines of the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, state that the center should have at least three call-takers on shift during normal hours and four during busy hours. The report states the center is short one staffer at all times.

California standards also require public safety answering points to answer 95 percent of emergency 911 calls within 15 seconds. Emergency Call Tracking System data shows that in 2017, Berkeley dispatchers answered 89 percent of calls within those guidelines.

If the center cannot meet these requirements, it risks losing state funding.

“Our dispatchers play a crucial role in maintaining the safety and security of our constituents. Dispatcher staffing shortages is an issue that is not unique to Berkeley, but we must do more to address any gaps in services,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in an email statement. “I want to thank the City Auditor for shining light on this issue and look forward to working with the Police Department to ensure that our dispatchers are getting the support and appreciation that they deserve.”

In 2018, the city authorized the hiring of 28 full-time dispatchers. By May, the department filled 23.5 of those positions. According to the report, only 45 percent of trainees hired between 2013 and 2017 successfully completed the program to become permanent staff. The lengthy hiring process, which includes nine months of training, is thought to contribute to vacancies.

Dispatchers acknowledge that overtime work is necessary to compensate for a small staff, but they are concerned that it may interfere with ongoing training, building a healthy workplace culture and accessing stress management resources, the report states.

To alleviate the problem of understaffing, Wong said in an email  her office has recommended that Berkeley Police Department conduct a staffing analysis to determine the appropriate staff levels now and in the future, improve recruitment and offer a stress management program for staffers that will include “training and access to wellness resources.”

According to NENA, about 16.3 percent of dispatchers are at risk of secondary traumatic stress disorder, which may contribute to health issues, lower employee retention, impaired work performance and low morale in the workplace.

The report recommends that the center provide eight hours of stress management training for all staff, access to on-site educational resources, such as a directory of local therapists specializing in traumatic stress disorders, debriefing sessions when staff members are involved in traumatic call events and peer-support programs.

“When I visited our 911 call center, it was clear that changes need to be made,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson. “Our residents need emergency services that are functioning as efficiently as possible, and our call center staff deserve an environment where they can do their best work.”

The audit recommends that the city manager report back by Nov. 19 and every six months thereafter, until recommendations are fully implemented by the police department.

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @V_anana.