SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco's 911 dispatchers are warning city officials about current staffing levels, even after the Department of Emergency Management backed off plans to mobilize dispatchers next month's APEC summit.
911 call centers across the country are understaffed and struggling to fill vacancies, leading to burnout and delays in answering emergency calls.
For the last 16 years, Burt Wilson has been the calming voice on the other end of the line, helping San Franciscans navigate the worst days of their lives.
"Taking a call from somebody saying they're having a heart attack and getting services like the paramedics to them at the right time in order to save their life, I think it's very gratifying," Wilson said.
On busy days, Wilson fields up to 20 calls an hour, all while having to stay cool and collected.
Wilson, who serves as the president of the union representing San Francisco's 911 dispatchers, is sounding the alarm. He says the very people tasked with helping residents in a crisis are in a crisis of their own.
"The phone constantly rings off the hook," he said.
Longtime staffing shortages at San Francisco's 911 center, he said, have resulted in burnout, fatigue and, worse, a chronic failure to meet the answering standard -- 95% of calls getting picked up within 15 seconds.
"A lot of people don't realize how bad it is until you have to call 911 and you can't get through the phone. And when seconds matter, you see how critical it is," Wilson added.
Earlier this month, tensions between dispatchers and the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management reached a boiling point after the city announced plans to mobilize dispatchers for the first time in 15 years ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit known as APEC.
Mobilizing dispatchers, something that is usually reserved for unforeseen natural disaster, would mean 12-hour shifts, five days a week. Wilson says he and other dispatchers in San Francisco are already stretched to the limit.
The decision was eventually reversed, but 911 dispatchers argue they should be classified as public safety workers, which would grant them more benefits.
"The governor and the president of the United States has classified 911 dispatchers as first responders. All we're asking is they give us the benefit, not just the title," he said.
Department of Emergency Management Executive Director Mary Ellen Carroll said San Francisco's 911 staff is down about 40% percent. But she also noted that figure is not unique to San Francisco. The department has recently hired a recruiter for the first time to try and address the problem.
"We obviously have more work to do," she said. "However, we can't not answer 911 calls. This is a 24/7 operation."
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin said that while there are no plans to classify dispatchers as public safety workers, the city is looking to compensate them in other ways.
"It is a very difficult job. And so I am committed to ensure that they are appropriately compensated and that we hire additional staff so that they don't have to work mandatory overtime," he said.
Wilson said he hopes the city finds a way to fix the problem, while people's lives are on the line.
"When seconds matter, you see how critical it is," he said.
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