Little Rock 911 call center has vacancies despite pay raises
By CHELSEA BOOZER
Apr. 01, 2018
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Despite an intense effort over the past year to attract call-takers and dispatchers to Little Rock's 911 Communications Center, including significant pay increases for those positions, there are still vacancies causing some callers to deal with long 911 wait times in emergencies.
City officials said they are optimistic the center will become more efficient and wait times will shorten. Officials said it will take more time to see the effects of changes that were made last year, since the process of fully training a new employee in call-taking and then dispatching is 36 months.
Last year, it took Little Rock's 911 call center 14 seconds on average to answer an emergency call. So far this year, that average time is 13 seconds, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported .
Still, there were 7,103 emergency calls last year that took longer than a minute to answer. That's 3 percent of the total 246,290 emergency calls in 2017. Nonemergency calls fare worse, with 6 percent, or 21,644, taking longer than 60 seconds to answer last year.
So far this year, 956 of the 34,595 emergency calls received in January and February took longer than a minute to answer, which represents 3 percent.
Standards set by the National Emergency Number Association require at least 90 percent of an agency's 911 calls to be answered within 10 seconds. Little Rock answered 64 percent of last year's emergency calls in that time and 66 percent of the calls received in the first two months of this year.
A year has passed since significant raises were put in place to help retain staff members, yet desks in the Little Rock call center sit empty.
Residents have to deal with the effects of that understaffing, which include not only staying on the phone line for their calls to be answered but sometimes waiting hours for police to arrive after a call.
This time last year the center had 14 vacancies; it now has 12. A training academy will start in May that can accommodate up to 10 trainees.
At the highest point last year, vacancies in the call center reached 22 out of 68 authorized positions.
Such understaffing can lead to mistakes when a sole call-taker is hit with an influx of calls during an emergency.
Two people — one call-taker and a supervisor — were taking calls around 2:30 a.m. on July 1, when a mass shooting happened at the Power Ultra Lounge in Little Rock. Supervisors step in to help answer calls during high-volume periods.
Those two workers were hit with 88 emergency 911 calls during and after the shooting, in which 25 people were shot and three others were otherwise injured.
By the city's own admission, the call-taker made some critical mistakes that night, such as erroneously telling Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services that the shooting scene was clear for emergency workers to enter and dispatching only one firetruck.
The call-taker also didn't follow up with that fire engine to communicate when it was clear for firefighters to enter the shooting scene, resulting in the driver waiting 13 minutes before approaching it.
A Police Department after-action assessment report said those mistakes "likely led to a degradation of patient care." No one injured in the shooting died.
"The operation of the system with only one call taker puts a burden on the other positions in the system and leads to critical processes being omitted," the report said. "Any decision to allow vacant positions to go unfilled in the communications center is short sighted and long lasting with the ability to regain full staffing slow and difficult."
Last year, after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette began questioning the time it took for 911 calls to be answered and the persistent call center vacancies, which stretched back decades, officials said they were making changes.
City Manager Bruce Moore implemented salary increases for call center employees and a step-and-grade pay system that guarantees 4 percent raises every year up to a certain point. Call-taking is considered an entry-level position. Call-takers saw their starting salaries jump by $6,500 to $35,000. Dispatchers received $12,200 raises to starting salaries of $43,000.
Call-takers answer 911 calls and obtain some information from callers before forwarding the information to dispatchers, who are then responsible for figuring out which emergency units to send out.
After a one-year period of probation and mandatory testing, a call-taker automatically begins a two-year training schedule to become a dispatcher.
The extra pay was supposed to serve as incentive for call-takers and dispatchers to stay on the job. Constant turnover has been attributed to the stress of the positions and a schedule that requires employees to work nights and weekends.
So far, it's unclear whether the pay alone can help retain employees.
Last year, 18 new call-takers were hired, but 18 employees also left the center.
Eight of those who left hadn't yet reached their one-year anniversaries. Four of them had been on the job only about three months.
"When you look at your national studies, because of the level of stress at the 911 center, because of the hours they are required to work — weekends, holidays and all of that — it goes without being said that if a person can find another job even comparable to that, they will take it," said Laura Martin, the communications manager at the center. "We believe that the 12-hour shifts will help that, but we have to get to an adequate staffing first."
Moore announced last year that call center workers would switch to 12-hour shifts. Employees will work fewer days compared with the current eight-hour shifts, and they will be off every other weekend.
But the switch still hasn't gone into effect because the Information Technology Department has to develop software to implement the change. It will be ready by the summer at the latest, officials said.
"I've made this a priority," Moore said. The Little Rock Police Department, which had a similar issue with vacancies, switched officers to 12-hour shifts last year.
Overall, Moore and Martin said they are optimistic about where the city is headed.
"I think we've done a great job bringing in some individuals who have experience in this area. Again, it is very demanding," Moore said. "I think the salary and benefit packages have made a tremendous difference in being able to recruit. Hopefully there's some incentives in this, as far as how long you can be a call-taker before you start dispatcher training."
"I'm pleased and feel very confident we'll get to the standard of 10 seconds," he said. "We aren't far off."
The center would have had to answer 63,973 more of its 246,290 emergency calls last year in less than 10 seconds to reach the national standard of answering 90 percent within 10 seconds.
The problems that have long plagued the center are no secret to its administrators.
In a February 2017 memo from Communications Center Administrator Kim Green to Capt. Russell King, Green wrote that 83 employees had left the call center between 2010 and 2017. In that same time, the workload had increased 56 percent.
"This deficit has resulted in a decline of services offered to the citizens of Little Rock as well as a significant loss of morale within the Center itself," she wrote.
One day last July, a man reported a break-in at his home at 6:20 p.m. and said his car had been stolen. He waited almost two hours before an officer arrived.
The call center's system didn't show any patrol units available at the time, and none responded for about an hour.
A patrol officer became available to respond at 7:41 p.m., but the call center was under orders from the police chief to send two police cars to all calls except for traffic incidents. Since the dispatcher couldn't find a backup unit, he released the initial car back into service.
It wasn't until 7:58 p.m. that two units became available. It took until 8:16 p.m. for both to arrive at the man's home.
During those two hours, call-takers entered 60 calls into the system for dispatching, and 45 of them were high priority. That includes shootings, robberies, assaults and other in-progress crimes.
Of those high priority cases, 16 were in the northwest division that handled the burglary call. The division had 11 officers and three supervisors working at the time.
"Policies are given to us down the chain of command, and we just have to adhere to them," Martin said. "I, as a manager, am always mindful of the incredibly stressful environment it is to begin with. It's a stressful job. When you walk in the door, it's stressful."
During an instance in October, five calls came in between 10:19 p.m. and 10:31 p.m. to report a vandal throwing rocks at vehicles at Markham Street and University Avenue.
One caller reported that his sunroof had been broken, and he was waiting for an officer. He called back at 10:37 p.m. to say he was leaving and didn't need police.
At that point, a dispatcher canceled the call for police to go to that area, but 10 minutes later the dispatcher realized that was a mistake because four other people had called 911 to also report vandalism in that area.
The dispatcher rebroadcast the call for an available officer at 10:46 p.m. At 11:04 p.m. someone who had earlier called 911 about the rock-throwing called back to ask when police would arrive. A unit became available and was dispatched at 11:05 p.m. and arrived three minutes later.
It took almost an hour after the first report for an officer to show up. Call center administrators said it was a heavy call time, with 71 calls coming in during an hour and a half. There were 44 calls entered for dispatching. Of the 27 that were high priority, 12 were assigned to the downtown division that also answered the mischief call.
In a previously reported case in January of last year, the call center failed to answer multiple calls from two people trying to report an attempted suicide. Four call-takers were working at the time, and in a 20-minute span they received 108 calls.
The two callers kept hanging up and calling back, which put them at the end of the queue each time. Both callers eventually got through, though one of them hung up after the call was answered.
People should never hang up during a 911 call, officials said. Not only does it put the callers in the back of the line, but call-takers must call back every abandoned call, taking up even more of their time.
"We get the calls as rapidly as we possibly can," Martin said. "The culture has exceeded the possibility of being able to keep up with the call volume even with a full staff. If I had somebody in every single chair, there would still be five, 10, 15 more calls than is physically possible to answer."
With cellphones making it easy for people to call 911, emergency centers across the nation have seen an uptick in calls. While call centers used to typically get one call about a car wreck, they now get as many as 20.
Little Rock's vacancy problem at the Communications Center might have as much to do with the city's hiring process as it does retention efforts.
It took about 11 months last year to hire eight call-takers to begin training.
There were 610 applications received between the end of January and the beginning of March 2017. Eventually eight people were selected, and they began training Dec. 11, 2017.
Employee Services Manager Kathleen Walker said one reason for the pay increases was to attract higher quality staff members, and that seems to have worked.
A second class of 10 employees was hired quicker because those people had previous call-taker experience. Still, it took four months between their application dates and the start of the training academy.
Another application period opened in November. New hires from that period are to begin training May 14. Official employment offers are to be made April 30 for up to 10 people.
That means candidates will have waited five months after applying to hear whether they got the jobs.
The hiring process involves a series of computerized tests and in-person interviews that take four to six weeks to get through. But the main holdup in the hiring process is background checks.
A unit of the Little Rock Police Department handles all of the city's background checks for its police force, including civilian employees such as secretaries and call center staff members.
It takes two to three months to complete a background check, Walker said.
The city's Human Resources Department staff has thought about hiring a vendor for the checks instead of doing them internally, but conversations about how to do that haven't happened yet.
"It is a lengthy process," Walker said of the current hiring process. "It steers away the people who need an immediate job in two to four weeks. If you are unemployed, it won't work for you. We are trying to target the underemployed."
Call-taker applicants are told when the training academy will start during the in-person interview portion of their tests. It's not listed when they first apply for a position.
If they get far enough along in the process, they should realize a potential hire date is months away, Walker said.
With police applicants, a new recruiting website set up for the department will list academy start dates so people who apply will know the timeline of the hiring process. The city may start listing the call-taker training academy days upfront as well.
"I know it's a challenge," Moore said of the hiring process. "You're taking a test for a job you don't get potentially until eight or nine months later."
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com