More than 100 emergency dispatchers and city workers gathered outside the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SFDEM) building at Turk and Laguna streets Wednesday afternoon to protest low staffing levels.
Emergency dispatchers — city workers who answer 911 calls and route them to the correct public safety agency — took to the street holding picket signs (“911, Do you have an emergency? Please hold!”) and chanting slogans (“What do we want? More dispatchers! When do we want it? Now!”).
One 911 dispatcher, Ron Davis, said that workers are regularly forced to work overtime “just to get us to minimum staffing levels.” Even when dispatchers work forced overtime, weekends and holidays, he said, the department is still sometimes below what he called minimum staffing levels. "We want the city to hire more dispatchers,” he said.
“I don’t go out on holidays with my family, because I’m afraid if there’s an emergency and I call 911, I’ll sit on hold,” he said, speaking to a raucous crowd of protesters. “There should be enough people to answer 911 calls.”
When there aren’t enough people to answer those calls, the callers are placed on hold. In California, there is a mandatory standard that all 911 calls be answered within 10 seconds. According to the protesting dispatchers, San Francisco doesn't always meet that standard. (Compliance drops to as low as 60 percent at some times of day, according to a release put out by the group.)
In addition to calls being placed on hold, understaffing increases the overall stress of an already stressful job, dispatch supervisor Anne Raskin said. She said that when a 911 call is placed on hold, a bell rings in the dispatch center within the SFDEM building. “The bell rings almost all day long. … It's stressful enough without having to go from call to call to call without time in between to recuperate.”
“It’s hard to explain the feeling of giving a mother CPR instructions because her child is turning blue, and hearing she spent 30 seconds on hold,” Sean Dryden, another 911 dispatcher, told the crowd.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, on hand to lend his support, said it is “unconscionable” not to be meeting necessary emergency staffing levels. “If we don’t have adequate staffing for emergency dispatch, it is going to compromise public safety,” he said.
Francis Zamora, SFDEM public information officer, said the dispatchers are right to shine a light on low staffing levels. “We absolutely agree, we need more dispatchers,” he said. “(But) progress is being made. Numbers are moving in the right direction.” He said the city has budgeted for 10 new dispatchers. Those employees are currently working their way through training and are expected to start soon, increasing the overall number of dispatchers to 170.
Emergency dispatchers are members of SEIU Local 1021, a public workers union that represents over 13,000 employees in the city and county of San Francisco. SEIU is currently in negotiations with San Francisco on a new contract. The event Wednesday was part of an SEIU-led campaign called “Worker Wednesday,” a parody of Mayor Ed Lee’s “Tech Tuesday” and intended to frame the city’s corporate-friendly environment at the expense of city workers. Despite an invite, the mayor did not attend, and in his place was a 7-foot cutout replica.
“The city has given multimillion-dollar tax breaks to keep corporations here, but they don’t have money for emergency staff?” dispatcher and local SEIU steward Ron Davis asked.
When asked if he would support a strike, Davis said no. “I would not strike, because when I don’t show up for work, people die. I would never abandon my post."
The San Francisco Controller's Office, City Services Auditor Division published a comprehensive study of emergency call center staffing levels in January. Read the full report here.
Nora Elmeligy contributed to the reporting of this story.