Oakland officials have obtained an extra $2.5 million to improve the city’s understaffed and poorly performing 911 system.
On Monday, Mayor Sheng Thao announced that the Oakland-Alameda Joint Power Authority, an independent government agency that manages the Coliseum, will provide the funding to the city. Thao said the money will help “strengthen” 911 and that officials will take additional steps to improve the computer-aided dispatch system and hire more dispatchers.
Money is tight for Oakland: The city recently balanced a $360 million deficit by making cuts across virtually all departments. The mayor did not cut police, but the city has continued to struggle with hiring and retaining dispatchers. Local watchdog agencies have raised concerns about how long it takes for Oakland’s 911 system to dispatch police, fire, and other services to callers.
“Response times have been a long-standing issue for the city,” Thao said. “We know this, but we do not accept that this is good enough.”
Thao was joined by Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Kevin Jenkins, Carroll Fife, and City Administrator Jestin Johnson.
OPD’s 911 center, which receives over half a million calls each year, currently has 62 dispatchers and 16 vacancies, according to a city press release. Earlier this summer, a power outage briefly disrupted the 911 system. An Oakland audit and Alameda County grand jury report found that 911 calls in Oakland aren’t being answered fast enough. The stakes are high to show improvement: The state recently threatened to withhold funding from OPD if the department can’t improve its response time.
Hiring more dispatchers is a critical part of the city’s strategy. Oakland has interviewed 79 dispatcher candidates since July and 50 have been referred for background checks, a necessary step before hiring.
Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who sits on the public safety committee and chairs the Joint Power Authority, urged Oaklanders to continue applying for these jobs.
“This is a quality job with quality benefits, and you can help protect and serve your community,” Kaplan said.
City Administrator Johnson said the city is preparing a major upgrade to the computer-aided dispatch system, which 911 call takers use to connect emergency responders to the scene of a call. The new system will be hosted in a commercial data center in Oakland with redundant power and cooling systems. The city has also improved its current backup power supply and started monthly testing to prevent future outages.
“Finally, we are working toward bringing our City Council a full draft of the administration’s response to the Alameda County Grand Jury report that also identified issues with our 911 system,” Johnson said. That report should come forward in early October.
Councilmember Carroll Fife said she recently met with 911 operators and was concerned about the lengthy hours some of them put in on the job. She said operators want the city to hire new recruits through academies, similar to how OPD hires cadets. Fife said this could create a stronger support network for new operators and help the city retain them. Fife also noted that 911 operators are burdened with unnecessary, non-emergency calls.
“We need help educating the public on why and how to call 911,” she said.
The Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program is supposed to divert non-emergency calls from 911 to civilian responders. City officials are virtually unanimous in their support for the system, but recent reports indicate MACRO responders are receiving just a fraction of their calls from the police for reasons that are unclear.