Who's Answering Phoenix Police 911 Operators' Calls For Help?
A Phoenix 911 operator who recently recovered from COVID-19 has died after returning to work. And now the city is investigating how it handled overtime in her case. Pamela Cooper’s story is part of a larger issue about who is answering 911 operators’ calls for help.
Four days after Pamela Cooper was rushed to the hospital, Councilwoman Betty Guardado said this: “Pamela’s shift should have been 10 hours but because of the chronic understaffing she was forced to stay for 15 hours.”
The day after working 15 hours, Cooper collapsed at home.
“We need an independent investigation into our 911 call centers and accountability for the mistakes made by the city and those who have made them,” Guardado said.
“I’ve struggled to get the police dispatch center clean from COVID cases,” said Frank Piccioli, president of AFSCME Local 2960, the union representing police operators and fire dispatchers. “I have dispatchers in police working 15, 20, 25 hours a week mandated overtime."
“I have dispatchers in police working 15, 20, 25 hours a week mandated overtime.”
— Frank Piccioli, AFSCME Local 2960 president
Phoenix has 51 openings for police communications operators, a vacancy rate of more than 20%. The fire department has 11 open dispatch positions (a vacancy rate of 11%) but six hires are expected to begin March 8.
When comparing salaries across the Valley, Phoenix found its minimum range ($44,158) and maximum range ($64,917) are below the average for Valley cities while its actual average salary ($55,356) is slightly above the Valley average of $54,766. Tempe, Mesa and Surprise have higher actual average salaries with Tempe the highest at $10,000 more than Phoenix.
In January, Phoenix’s Chief Human Resources Director Lori Bays told the city's public safety subcommittee that workload also matters.
“If you can work for Phoenix for example and have to manage up to 200 calls per day or you can work for another city and have, you know, an average of 20 calls per day and make approximately the same amount of money, some of our dispatchers have chosen to do that,” she said.
Piccioli said calls are put on hold daily, usually one or two, but sometimes workers text photos showing several more.
“I’ve heard calls being on hold for as few as two minutes to as large as five minutes. And five minutes being on hold on a 911 call, well, I mean, you can imagine depending on the situation,” he said.
The national standard set by the National Emergency Number Association, which Phoenix follows, is to answer 90% of 911 calls within 15 seconds. Phoenix says it answers 82% within 15 seconds.
Not Just 911 Calls
Police operators also take calls for Crime Stop, the non-emergency number people use to report suspicious activity. During January’s subcommittee meeting, Councilwoman Guardado said she’s heard constituents complain of Crime Stop hold times lasting 30 minutes.
“We don’t want to discourage people from calling in, like we want to make sure that they continue to call in misbehavior and then at the same time we want to make sure that we can also provide something better for our dispatchers,” she said.
Jeff Spellman with the Violence Impact Project Coalition expressed concern over hold times: “This is very, very frustrating to people that are trying to be engaged in neighborhood advocacy and block watch.”
He said when Crime Stop callers are put on hold they sometimes hang up and call 911, increasing stress for operators and potentially putting officers at risk.
“When dispatchers are trying to hurry callers off the line they’re not getting all of the information that they should that would be relayed to police officers,” he said.
Work Group Recommendations
In 2019, the HR department created a 911/civilian response work group with employees to come up with ways to help. After eight months of meetings, the group’s recommendations for workspace, staffing, recruiting, wellness and training improvements were sent to City Manager Ed Zuercher in May 2020.
Since then, HR says it began streamlining the hiring process and Zuercher recently announced starting pay will increase effective March 8. Piccioli said more money may attract new dispatchers, but it’s just as important to keep them. The industry burnout rate is generally seven to eight years.
“Experience is everything in this job,” he said. “You certainly learn to cope better as a seasoned dispatcher than as a new dispatcher.”
Police communications operators answer more than 2 million calls a year. All 911 calls within Phoenix go to the police department’s emergency communications center. From there, operators transfer calls to Phoenix Fire and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. They also dispatch Phoenix officers to active scenes.
Dreary is the description often used for the operators workspace, especially at the police department’s second location in a building shared with the Property Management Bureau. Recommendations include replacing office equipment and adding workstation treadmills, yoga balls and combination sit-stand desks, like fire dispatchers have.
For all operators/dispatchers, Phoenix increased counseling sessions available at no extra cost to employees. The move from 12 sessions per traumatic incident up to 36 annually mirrors the number offered to sworn police and fire personnel. The HR department said training has been revised to include somatic response and self-care and work is underway on a civilian career survival class similar to one for sworn officers.
The city also introduced pet therapy. Two K-9s join their handlers at work in the communications bureau and the city tried a horse therapy pilot program that was well received. But Piccioli said visiting a horse farm is unrealistic when they’re understaffed.
“How do you have the time to send a dispatcher when they’re mandated overtime? And if I’m holding over from a 10-hour shift another six hours I don’t want to do anything but go to sleep,” he said.
During last week’s council meeting, the city manager responded to Guardado’s call for an investigation into what happened to 911 operator Pamela Cooper.
“We will provide you a report,” Zuercher said. “I have asked the human resources director to do a full review of the facts of the situation.
As the city pursues different recruitment strategies, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll see an influx of qualified applicants. Just like police officers, 911 operators must pass background checks and be able to make critical decisions in fast-paced, stressful situations.
Operators’ calls for help are being heard at city hall. But the response time for filling vacancies and other recommendations from employees remains unknown.
"The union mourns with the family of our union sister. We will continue to fight on in her name to put a stop to the constant mandated overtime in her department and we will always remember her spirit. We will also pursue this as a line of duty death as we feel our sister got this at work." Piccioli said.
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