911 operators: understaffed, overworked and paid much less than nearby cities
Furloughs at emergency call center are actually wasting city money
Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - In addition to glitches and challenges presented by the new 911 system, operators and dispatchers at the city's emergency call center are understaffed and overworked; however, the situation may get worse as Arizona cities offer more competitive salaries for those positions.
The budget allows for 56 dispatchers, although the city is currently employing only 36, while six more remain in training and under close supervision. The city can employ 20 operators, but only 15 of those positions are filled.
Councilman Steve Kozachik has been in touch with several dispatchers and is concerned about the morale at the call center: "They're concerned about job safety. They're concerned because they have questions about the reliability of the system. And they have not been allowed to speak freely."
Even the Ron Lewis, director of the city's general services department, admitted that dispatchers have been stretched thin recently.
"Certainly, the morale is impacted by staffing. We're low on staffing, so we're using an extraordinary amount of overtime, which wears on people over time," Lewis said. "Human resources has already posted for additional dispatchers. We're in the process of taking care of that as best we can."
That overtime is costing the city an extraordinary amount: For the first three months of this year alone, overtime amounted to 15 percent of the department's staffing budget.
Yet another thing that may worsen the situation is the lack of financial incentive for call employees to stay at their jobs, given the substantially higher wages that nearby Arizona cities offer.: In terms of starting salaries, Tucson dispatchers are paid $5,000 less than Sierra Vista; $6,000 less than Scottsdale; $7,000 less than Phoenix; $8,000 less than Peoria; and $10,000 less than Goodyear.
KGUN9 News made attempts to ask City Manager Mike Letcher about the problem, but his secretary said he was not available for any interviews regarding the 911 story.
Council member Shirley Scott expressed her concern. "The council will have to put our heads together and try to come up with the best solution ... We will have to see if there's money available and then we as a body, will have to decide how we can move forward and make it better for all concerned."
"There are a dozen different jurisdictions in Southern Arizona that are approaching our employees," Kozachik said. "To the extent that we are losing people because we are not paying a competitive rate, it's going to take us literally years to dig ourselves out of this hole."
Kozachik is also concerned with the money the furlough program is costing the city: Because seats cannot be left empty during those days, people are called in overtime, essentially defeating the purpose of saving money.
Kozachik stated that Letcher has the power to fix that immediately, but has elected not to: "If you do the arithmetic with respect to furloughs, it's time and a half versus straight time. That shouldn't take a whole proces to go through."
Since late May, problems have plagued the city's new emergency system and have challenged dispatchers on their job, through faulty screen locators, dropped calls and difficulties monitoring those calls. Concern over the issues increased after records disclosed that a 10-year-old girl died after a dispatcher sent paramedics to the wrong location, with some blaming that mistake on the new system.
Lewis said that they have worked out almost all the technical problems and emphasized that at no point in time has public safety been jeopardized. Nevertheless, even if the city wants to revert back to the old system, it is too late: they removed all the hardware for the old one.