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St. Louis cops to answer 911 calls on overtime amid staffing woes

Cadets have already started taking 911 calls, while some police officers remain in training


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By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — City leaders are tapping police officers to work overtime in the understaffed 911 dispatch center, an attempt to address the 40% of 911 callers in St. Louis still being put on hold in recent months.

Under the plan, the 10 newest graduates from the St. Louis Police Academy and seven experienced officers who volunteered are undergoing a month of training to be able to answer 911 calls.

The department’s police cadets, a training program for people ages 18 to 20 who are too young to become officers, have also been trained to take 911 calls, public safety director Daniel Isom told the Post-Dispatch last week.

The news comes more than six months after St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones pledged to reduce 911 delays in the city. That pledge followed reports in the Post-Dispatch and other local media about callers with emergencies like fires, break-ins and shootings who were put on hold for 10 minutes or longer.

Today, St. Louis’ 911 service remains far below national standards, while progress on Jones’ proposed fix of combining the city’s police, fire and EMS dispatch centers has come slower than administration officials expected.

Hold times have not shown significant improvement over the last year.

The police department’s goal is to answer 90% of 911 calls within 10 seconds, in line with minimum industry standards established by the National Emergency Number Association.

Monthly totals over the last six months averaged only 60% of 911 calls answered that quickly, including September when nearly half of 911 calls were put on hold for at least 10 seconds.

In February, the number of calls picked up within 10 seconds ticked up to 68.17%. About 4.4% of 911 calls last month were put on hold for at least two minutes.

Dispatcher staffing has grown worse this year.

Today 37% of police dispatcher positions are vacant, with 53 of 84 positions filled. That’s compared with a 30% vacancy rate in July. Three of 12 management positions also are open.

Isom has said that hiring for the positions has been like “one step forward and two steps back,” as experienced dispatchers leave for better paying jobs elsewhere.

“Unfortunately there’s just a trickle of job applicants coming through,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s not just dispatchers, it’s a product of the job market right now.”

[RELATED: Survey: 911 dispatchers lack resources to handle behavioral health crises]

The Jones administration hopes that turning to police officers to fill in the gaps will help in the meantime, despite opposition to the plan from the union representing civilian police dispatchers and officers.

Officers step in

Cadets have already started taking 911 calls, while some police officers remain in training, Isom said.

The officers were taken off their assignments for training, but will only take 911 shifts on overtime, or if there is an emergency shortage of call-takers, Isom said.

Traditional dispatchers will continue to manage the sending of officers to calls on the police radio, Isom said.

The police department sent an email to officers Dec. 17 asking for volunteers for the training. That same day, the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association’s business manager Jeff Roorda sent a letter on behalf of the civilian dispatchers, whom the union represents, to interim Director of Personnel Sylvia Donaldson.

Roorda petitioned Donaldson, who was tasked with managing the city’s employment system, to stop the plan and negotiate with the union.

“As much as the union would like to see the dire crisis in police 911 staffing addressed, this is not a good solution and in fact, it’s downright dangerous,” Roorda wrote.

Roorda said officers would make three times as much on overtime compared with the dispatchers they’ll work beside.

“It is inconceivable that the city can find the money to pay police officer overtime after taking a haphazard crash-course on 911 call-taking at a much higher rate than longtime professional complaint evaluators are paid,” Roorda wrote. “If the city has the money to spend on exorbitant overtime wages in order to provide patchwork coverage in the 911 center, why not just solve this crisis completely, once-and-for-all by paying dispatchers and complaint evaluators competitive wages?”

Dispatchers got their first substantial raise in years in February 2020 when then-Mayor Lyda Krewson raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all city employees, bringing the starting salary to $31,200 from $25,870.

The city in February 2021 approved another pay bump, raising the starting salary to $38,000.

But the latest wage increase applied only to new employees. While entry-level salaries jumped by thousands, many dispatchers with five to 10 years on the job still make about $40,000, not much more than those going through dispatchers’ 11-month training period.

Merger plans

The Jones administration announced a plan in August to improve 911 service by eliminating a longtime bottleneck created by the city’s three separate 911 centers for police, EMS and firefighters.

But six months later, a plan that officials at first expected to take weeks is still in the works.

All 911 calls today are first directed to the police 911 center. Calls for EMS and firefighters are then rerouted while police 911 dispatchers stay on the line.

Jones announced at a news conference that she would combine the three centers into the police dispatch center at 1225 Spruce Street. Jones cited her experience waiting on hold after reporting gunshots to 911.

“After years of neglect, it’s no secret that our 911 system needs our support,” Jones said at the time.

The change has been debated in the city for at least 15 years as a way the departments could better coordinate response and stop competing against each other for dispatch employees.

While initial targets of finishing the consolidation this fall were not met, Isom said that the city cleared one big hurdle of the plan this month.

The city personnel department earlier this month approved a plan to move all EMS and police dispatchers under the same “public safety dispatcher” job classifications, opening the possibility of cross training dispatchers to take calls for both and evening pay disparities.

Merging the classifications comes about a month after Jones appointed a new interim personnel director, John Moten Jr.

The change also alters qualifications for the lowest level of dispatcher, eliminating the need for at least one year working in customer service or previous experience as a dispatcher, Isom said.

“We wanted to create an entry-level position to open it up to more people,” Isom said. “If we had a retired teacher that wanted to be a dispatcher, they may not qualify under the old qualifications.”

Fire dispatchers will remain under a separate classification, Isom said.

St. Louis Chief Dennis Jenkerson had voiced concerns in city public safety meetings about the need for the fire department to retain some control over its dispatch staff.

A mayoral spokesman told the Post-Dispatch last week that the salaries for the new public safety dispatcher job classes have not been decided. Fire equipment dispatchers have a starting salary of about $50,000, while dispatchers for police start at $38,000 and EMS start at $33,000.

Isom said the city is still preparing to move all fire, police and EMS dispatchers into the same office, but is waiting on some furniture and equipment to arrive before the move.

The unions representing fire, police and EMS dispatchers have complained that they have not been consulted about the potential consolidation.

“The mayor’s ‘go-it-alone’ approach is certain to be ill-fated,” Roorda wrote in a letter to the personnel director this fall asking the city to negotiate with the union before moving forward.

Emily Perez, attorney for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 73, told the Post-Dispatch in an email last week that the fire union had not been given a copy of plans to consolidate, and representatives had not been consulted.

“The union is fully supportive of modernizing and streamlining the city’s dispatch services,” Perez wrote, adding that the union would like the city to follow its charter and get input from stakeholders “including the unions that represent members who will be impacted.”

Long term, the city’s merger plan announced in August aimed to shift all dispatchers to a shared, up-to-date software system and build a multimillion-dollar facility to house them.

From design to completion, the project was estimated to take about three years and cost $32 million.

A measure allowing the city to sell as much as $50 million in capital improvements bonds could help fund the project.

The measure is on the ballot for the April 5 municipal election.

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