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Workers say San Francisco's new 911 dispatch center is plagued with problems

San Francisco 911 dispatchers say new center needs overdue technical upgrade
San Francisco 911 dispatchers say new center needs overdue technical upgrade 03:58

San Francisco launched its new multi-million dollar 911 dispatch center a couple of months ago, but people who work there say the facility has been troubled from the start.

When someone calls 911 what all they care about it getting help and fast. For 16 years, Burt Wilson has been answering those calls, day in and day out. 

"Being a dispatcher is a great job. You literally help people at their greatest time of need," he said. 

But as the president of the 911 Dispatchers Union, Wilson said behind the scenes at the city's Department of Emergency Management, there's a complex set of challenges and problems that will take time and money to fix. 

In April, the city unveiled its new and improved 911 dispatch center. The $9 million renovation was funded by a bond approved by voters four years ago. The remodel included 55 new work stations, ergonomic chairs and a state-of-the art of facility. 

But Wilson says that most of those improvements, though needed, were merely cosmetic. 

"It's almost like lipstick on pig," he said. 

The day after the grand opening, Wilson said the center's computer system crashed for two and a half hours. The system problem forced dispatchers to resort to what's known as "manual mode."  

"When a call comes in, everything is written down on a piece of paper. It's given to a runner so they can take it to a police dispatch or a fire dispatch," he explained. 

Wilson said it wasn't the only time, estimating there had been anywhere from six to eight crashes since then. Some of the system crashes have lasted up to four hours. 

San Francisco Department of Emergency Management Executive Director Mary Ellen Carroll said the computer system is nearing its end of life. There is a larger $44 million plan to upgrade, but that won't happen for another two years. 

"There has not been an impact on the public or on the delivery of services and it prepares us for much worse scenarios, for instance, if we were to lose massive power outage, we're pretty good at doing manual mode," she said.

The goal for 911 dispatchers is to answer 95% of calls within 15 seconds. In February, the most recent data available, San Francisco was at 73% out of 1,850 calls received that month.

"If you look at the mean number, half of our calls are answered within three seconds," Carroll said.

Wilson believes the department isn't doing enough to recruit and retain workers. He said since 2019, more than 60% of those who completed training have left. 

"It's kind of hard to keep them here when you can't get any days off," he said.

San Francisco is trying to address the staffing issues at the dispatch center, where there are about 40 positions still unfilled.

The city is hiring, but each recruit has to go through 16 months of training before being ready for the job. The salary range for a San Francisoc 911 dispatcher is between $106,000 and $135,000. Interested parties can apply on the website.

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