AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department has lowered the minimum number of 911 call-takers required per shift, which will result in longer hold times.
Lieutenant Ken Murphy, who heads APD’s Emergency Communications Division, said the move was crucial to the well-being of staff members, and, by extension, the retention of those staff members at a time where vacancy rates are nearing 50%.
“Most of them are working 20-36 hours of overtime a week. It’s unhealthy for our staff, and it’s unsafe,” he said. “Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen a significant increase in staff calling in sick. And I truly believe it’s because they’re overworked, and they’re stressed, and their bodies are not as strong as they should be, and they’re becoming ill.”
The lower minimum staffing requirement helps eliminate the amount of mandatory overtime for these employees, Lt. Murphy said.
Before the change went into effect Sunday, communications staffing were as follows:
- 911 operators: 10-13 minimum employees
- Dispatchers: 12 minimum employees
911 operators answer incoming calls, while dispatchers communicate directly with officers.
The new staffing requirements are below:
- 911 operators: Six minimum employees
- Dispatchers: 10 Sunday-Wednesday, 11 Thursday-Saturday (to staff an additional dispatcher for the downtown sector)
“It was a very difficult decision because obviously there are consequences,” said Murphy. “People calling 911 are not going to get the immediate response they deserve to receive. This is not the service we want to provide, this is not the service our operators want to provide. However, it’s necessary, again to retain our staff.”
According to 911 call data Murphy provided KXAN, since the staffing shift Sunday, 911 operators have answered 79.42% of calls within 10 seconds. During that same time period last week, before the shift, 911 operators answered 83.06% of calls within 10 seconds. APD’s current goal is to answer 90% of calls in 10 seconds.
“No one calls 911 for fun,” said Gabe Quattlebaum, who said he was on hold with 911 on a Saturday night when someone harassed him and started following him.
“I would say it rang probably like seven times, and then there was an automated message,” he said. While he’s okay, and he said APD called him back the next day to inform him the person in question was ultimately detained, Quattlebaum said it was unnerving waiting on the phone. “We need help, we are scared, we’re in danger, we need your assistance.”
In 2019, Murphy said 99% of calls were answered within 10 seconds. But back then, the division was only operating at a 10% vacancy versus today’s 47%.
“More calls are going to hold, because we just don’t have the operators to answer the calls,” he said.
He said the final two factors that prompted the decision to lower the minimum staffing requirements were an increased number of sick calls and murmurings of additional staff members thinking about leaving.
“I know anecdotally we have staff looking for other jobs — actively looking for other jobs,” he said. “We’re trying to do something to maintain that staff.”
Murphy said this move has, at least at this point, three days in, eliminated mandated overtime hours, and staff members have volunteered to take on a portion of the previous amount of overtime hours.