Oakland’s 911 system is notoriously overburdened and under-resourced. The city has been struggling for years to make sure calls are answered quickly. These problems recently made headlines because of a power outage that briefly interrupted 911 service and a warning from the state that it might withhold funds if OPD’s response times don’t improve.
On Tuesday, the City Council discussed ways to improve the police department’s Emergency Communications Center, which operates the city’s 911 call system.
The council also reviewed a spending plan for $2.5 million the city recently obtained from the Oakland Coliseum’s governing board to help fix the 911 system.
Tuesday’s discussion was prompted by two Alameda County Grand Jury reports that have raised concerns about Oakland’s 911 response time. According to the grand jury’s most recent report, published in June, only about half the calls to Oakland’s 911 centers in 2022 were picked up by a dispatcher within 15 seconds. The California Office of Emergency Services requires that 90% of calls must be answered by a live person within 15 seconds, and 95% within 20 seconds.
“The grand jury notes some very significant and troubling problems,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who also chairs the council’s public safety committee. “The importance of doing the work to change some of these problems is really essential.”
In total, the grand jury, which is a volunteer group of county residents working under the authority of the superior court who investigate local government problems, made 12 recommendations that mostly focused on hiring more staff, including dispatchers, streamlining Oakland’s hiring process, updating technology, and delegating some duties from dispatch supervisors.
Kiona Suttle, deputy director with OPD, said her department has already implemented a couple of recommendations, including reducing the amount of overtime dispatchers spend handling calls. Staff indicated that this is a critical issue because dispatchers experience burnout if they’re forced to work too many extra hours answering stressful calls and processing public records requests
Four other recommendations that the city is currently in the process of implementing address the hiring and training of police dispatchers, building an upgraded computer system for assisting dispatch calls, hiring a dedicated IT manager for the 911 center, and preparing an operations emergency plan.
Much of Tuesday’s conversation focused on hiring, which was also addressed at the last council meeting where councilmembers brainstormed plans to tackle the significant uptick in crime this year.
The city currently has about 62 dispatchers and operators and 26 vacancies. Dispatchers receive more training than operators and they handle other services at the emergency center. Thirty-six applicants for dispatcher jobs are going through background checks, which is a mandatory step before hiring.
To speed things up, the Human Resources Department hired a consultant to find snags in the hiring process and assigned an analyst to solve problems. According to the report, Oakland has reduced the time it takes to “process candidates” from six months to just two since April 2023. The city now allows applicants who fail the written exam to retake it and apply within three months instead of waiting six. The city has also resumed monthly virtual recruitment seminars to provide information about the hiring process and strengthened a partnership with Merritt College to advertise dispatcher positions.
Councilmember Dan Kalb quizzed staff about information he received from “somebody within the city” who told him that Oakland suspended its continuous recruitment for dispatchers during the pandemic. Continuous recruitment means the city is constantly advertising and searching for candidates, as opposed to recruiting people within a limited window of time.
Suttle said there has been continuous recruitment for dispatchers through 2023, aside from a period of less than a month around April, which she chalked up to a mistake by HR. She couldn’t speak to whether continuous recruiting happened in 2021 or 2020.
Kalb and Councilmember Janani Ramachandran are scrutinizing the historic hiring practices of 911 dispatchers. Ramachandran recently asked the city for more detailed information about hiring practices for 911 dispatchers going back to 2022.
Kalb also said it’s important to retain existing dispatch staff.
“I’m going to say retention 14,000 times,” Kalb said, noting that he’s already asked the city administrator to craft a plan to retain dispatchers.
Like police officers, dispatchers must perform mandatory overtime, which has contributed to burnout and staffing problems. OPD has tried to minimize this by rotating overtime duties. A staff member said dispatchers currently do around 10 to 16 hours of overtime each week, which is less than last year when the average was closer to 20-24 hours per week.
The city recently obtained $2.5 million to help with hiring and retaining dispatchers. In a spending plan attached to the grand jury response, city officials propose investing hundreds of thousands of dollars for training equipment, plus $464,000 for ergonomic furniture. The city wants to allocate $150,000 to dole out for signing bonuses, and $40,000 to reward OPD staff who help recruit new dispatchers.
The money would also pay for 9 new staff members, including operators, dispatchers, and supervisors, as well as two contractor positions: a project manager who will help the 911 center accomplish the changes outlined in the grand jury report, and a therapist.
“I certainly stand in full support for everything you’ve asked for in your spending plan,” Councilmember Treva Reid said.
During the meeting, Councilmember Carroll Fife said that OPD didn’t notify her or other councilmembers two months ago that the city was at risk of losing state funding for its 911 system. Fife learned about the letter earlier this month when it was reported on by the media. Suttle said she wasn’t sure why the council wasn’t informed earlier.
“If we don’t have a process already in place to inform City Council that we may be losing funding for emergency services, I think it would be in the best interest of the city to put something in place,” Fife said, noting that she and her colleagues are held responsible when anything goes wrong in Oakland.
Tech upgrades, future hires, and awareness campaigns
The grand jury also recommended that Oakland prioritize upgrading its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, which relays information between dispatchers and patrol officers, and the record management system that OPD uses to archive information about crimes and other incidents. The city is working on this, but OPD acknowledged that it won’t happen by the suggested deadline of December 2023. The department anticipates completing the CAD upgrade around March 2024, and the record management system upgrade by June 2025.
The city didn’t agree with all of the grand jury’s recommendations. The grand jury said Oakland should approve 15 new management positions in the 911 call center for 2023-2025. The council already approved the city’s budget, but the city administrator said the city should consider funding 37 different positions when it approves the mid-budget cycle next June, including a manager, more dispatchers and operators, intake technicians to handle after-hour complaints, police service technicians to help people calling about existing police reports, and public service representatives who can take non-police calls.
The city also agreed with the grand jury that Oakland’s emergency center is not well prepared for a major disaster and lacks a recovery plan. OPD’s upgraded computer-aided dispatch system will have an off-site data center to avoid losing data during a disaster like a major fire, earthquake, or flood.
The grand jury also recommended that OPD spend more time teaching the public about non-911 services, such as 211, OAK311, and MACRO. OPD is developing an educational campaign to teach residents about how to use the emergency response system, which is supposed to launch in December.
Toward the end of the meeting, Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas reiterated that Oakland’s dispatchers are doing their best despite limited resources. Bas said she recently called 911 to report a car driving erratically on International Boulevard, and the dispatcher “was incredibly professional.”