AUSTIN (KXAN) – Assistant Chief Rick Riley of the San Antonio Police Department remembers when the city’s 911 center staffing was not up to par.
“We had experienced some increased time in answer calls and our abandon rate was higher than what we wanted to see it,” said Riley, who spoke with KXAN outside the city’s Public Safety Headquarters.
Riley told us a study commissioned by the city confirmed the obvious: it needed more call takers in the case of 911 emergencies. That’s why between 2017 and 2018, it added about 100 new positions.
Over a few months in spring 2018, San Antonio’s average call answer time improved from 8 seconds to about 1 second. In the time since then, it has stayed there or gotten a little faster. The only outlier was a call answer time of three and a half seconds this February when winter storms pounded Texas.
“How did you find and recruit all these people?” KXAN Investigator Kevin Clark asked Riley.
“[There was] a lot of advertising that went out to try and pull these people in,” Riley said.
San Antonio Police further explained that it made its nearly-100 hires after advertising the positions on the city’s website. It explained there were no specific incentives for the new hires but law enforcement officials said one advantage for employees was the option of working at two different 911 centers.
There are two 911 centers in the San Antonio area where operators and dispatchers can work. One is the city’s and is on the southeast side of San Antonio. The other is Bexar Metro’s and is on the north side of the city.
“During the COVID pandemic, we split the operations between the two [911 centers] in order to avoid a scenario where the spread of the disease would result in a severe drop in service,” said a San Antonio police spokesperson. “Current employees who live near one or the other [911 centers] enjoy the shorter commute time.”
Riley says there were challenges, including training the sheer number of new employees. At the same time, he said the city was upgrading its call routing technology after 911 callers had previously experienced brief delays.
“If I could make the analogy of, sometimes you dial on your cell phone and you wait for that cell phone to connect,” Riley said. “That’s what was happening to callers on the other end.”
With public safety at stake, Austin city leaders are grappling with an understaffed 911 center.
Staffing issues are not unique to Austin, but we wanted to look at San Antonio because it made a large investment in 911 center staffing.
In general, comparing 911 centers isn’t apples to apples, especially with staffing.
The National Emergency Number Association, knows as NENA, has certain standards, including for call answer times. NENA’s Operations Director April Heinze says there are no national standards for staffing. She noted that 911 center operations vary depending on the jurisdiction. For example, in some places, dispatchers and call takers work in different buildings. In other, generally smaller places, an individual does both jobs.
“It’s impossible to do something at the national level, as far as control,” Heinze said.
We told you Austin 911 has seen a growing number of vacancies in its call center in the last couple of years.
“We have open postings all the time,” said Lt. Ken Murphy, who oversees the employees.
While Austin’s 911 operators are meeting NENA’s standard of answering 90 percent of calls in 15 seconds or less, tipsters and former call takers worry callers could be left on hold during a major emergency event.
“Something’s gotta give,” said Mackenzie Kelly, Austin City Council member representing District 6. “We can’t just be understaffed because it’s overtaxing for our current dispatchers and telecommunicators.”
We told Kelly about what San Antonio PD did to improve staffing. She says she’ll be lobbying other council members about obtaining first responder stipends and other incentives to hire more 911 operators.
“I plan on bringing this to them and suggesting they go down to dispatch and spend an hour with a dispatcher or telecommunicator because that will change anyone’s perspective,” she said.
San Antonio’s 911 center staff is 34% larger than Austin’s. In 2019, it received 29% more calls than Austin.
As NENA tells us, high turnover is not unique to Austin’s 911 center. While Austin has had 100 departures since 2019, San Antonio has had 119.
NENE tells us, there is a 15-20% turnover rate for 911 employees nationwide.
Investigative Producer & Digital Reporter David Barer, Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.