911 operators: Overworked, and falling asleep at the switch?
Some dispatchers feel their fatigue is endangering the public
Reporters: Craig Smith, Claire Doan and Forrest Carr
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - While the Tucson Fire Department takes over the city's new, but troubled plagued 911 system, our 9 On Your Side Investigation has evidence of 911 workers, overworked and exhausted while trying to keep you safe.
Tucson's problem-riddled 911 system is now under new management.
The Tucson fire department took it over Wednesday, after months of snags in the system and complaints from dispatchers and operators.
Few are more surprised than fire chief Jim Critchley-- who was notified Monday afternoon.
That's hours after 911 workers went public with their concerns about issues with the new 911 system.
9 on your side reporter Claire Doan asked City Manager Mike Letcher how this sudden move would improve public safety.
Doan asked: "you said this is pretty much a first step in resolving he 911 glitches. The majority of those glitches as we've heard have been technical so how is transferring management or authority going to change that?"
Letcher: "Well the major technical issues. i think most of those have been resolved or close to resolution. i think where people are now is really some of the operational and technical issues involving the system with dispatchers>
Critchley says he has to identify all the problems at the call center before deciding what changes to make.
He also says he'll be as transparent as possible.
Tucson's 911 troubles are not just technical.
The center has staff shortages severe enough to leave overworked operators and dispatchers dangerously worn out.
911 operators and dispatchers pride themselves on being alert, resourceful, sharp enough to size up a dangerous situation and send the right resources.
But some 911 workers want you to know they are so overworked, some of them are too tired to truly take care of your safety.
KGUN9 News has obtained a photo taken in Tucson's 911 center. We chose to obscure the person's face.
The original, unaltered photo shows someone with head back, face to the ceiling, eyes closed, and arms hanging limply at the dispatcher's side. Whether this restful pose was the result of a brief moment of relaxation between calls, or was a serious nap, isn't clear from the photo, but a co-worker was concerned enough to document the moment in a snapshot.
And this was not one person's problem.
Anonymous e-mails obtained by KGUN9 discuss other incidents with other workers on other days.
A e-mail from March describes a dispatcher snoring.
There's a more disturbing e-mail from June written the day after a multi-alarm fire at an assisted living center left a man dead. The e-mail describes struggles to wake a different dispatcher from the one in the photo.
It says, "…dispatcher is once again falling asleep, during a building 3 with what turned out to be a casualty...."
Earlier, it described the dispatcher this way. "Because he was so tired, and in and out of sleeping, he was just not comprehending anything!"
The e-mail says it was clear earlier the dispatcher was too sleepy to be sharp. It says the dispatcher's mistakes delayed help by a minute and a half for a man who called 911 because he was having trouble breathing.
Even before the fatal fire, one dispatcher had lost hope managers would take any action. The dispatcher wrote, "I was hoping and thinking you were going to still come over and handle this mess and put an end to it but you didn't."
9 On Your Side tried to ask General Services Director Ron Lewis about this issue. His office is in a secured building. KGUN9 reporter Craig Smith left another in a long list of unreturned messages.
With the administration so far not talking, it's unclear how widespread this problem might be. But an e-mail obtained by KGUN9 News suggests that managers are not overly concerned. One supervisor, writing to a dispatcher who was expressing concern about fatigue problem, explains why managers are not going to issue a general memo to the staff about the need to remain alert. "Though dispatchers falling asleep is an issue, it only involves a small handful of people and we think the best way to handle it is to deal with the individual. "
9 On Your Side also tried to contact some of the managers mentioned in the e-mails. One who responded, referred us to the Fire department.
Recently the Tucson City Council took steps to ease the schedule problems 911 workers blame for keeping worn out workers on the job. The council cut back unpaid furloughs for 911 workers. Furloughs were meant to cut the budget but left other workers doing more overtime.
Council has also authorized more hiring to reduce the overall staff shortage. But as 9 On Your Side has documented in earlier reoprts, Tucson pays 911 workers less than many other jurisdictions. As a result, thecity is losing trained workers and is at a disadvantage when it's time to hire new ones.
Correction: an earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that the dispatcher photographed reclining at his console was resting with head back, eyes closed and mouth open. The original photo did not, in fact, show the person with mouth open. The rest of the description was correct. KGUN9 News regrets the error.