Tuesday, November 1, 2022

City Addressing Emergency Call Center Staff Shortages and Wait Times with Pay Incentives, Recruitment Drive

The City of Austin is planning to make salary adjustments leading to more pay for some existing 911 Call Takers and Police Dispatcher staff to address pay compression that resulted from the recent Living Wage increase. These efforts, combined with stipends and the development of a Citywide recruitment campaign, support the retention of existing employees and aim to assist in filling staff vacancies at Austin Police Department’s emergency call center. 

"In an emergency, every second counts and our goal is to get callers the help they need as quickly as possible," said Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk. "The best way to reduce call wait times is to get more operators to answer calls. I want to reassure the community that retaining and recruiting more operators and dispatchers for our emergency call center is a top priority."

The salary adjustments, which are expected to be implemented before the end of the year, follow a special review requested by Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon, who today updated Council on a wide range of actions already taken by City leadership over the past few months to boost recruitment and retention of operators and dispatchers to help with call volumes. 

Those actions include delivering significant pay raises between March and September following a market study and pay scale adjustments related to the implementation of the $20 living wage. Entry pay for 911 Call Takers increased by 26% (to $22.85 per hour) over that time and entry pay for Police Dispatchers rose by 35% (to $24.42 per hour).  

For most existing employees, pay has already increased on average by 13.6%. As of last month, 100% of 911 Call Takers and 98% of Police Dispatchers with APD were earning more than the market median, based on a study of similar cities, and about a third (37% of Call Takers and 31% of Dispatchers) were placed in the highest-paid quartile of the market rate for their positions. 

Additionally, a stipend was implemented – and renewed for FY 2023 – to pay employees with a TCOLE Telecommunicator Certification an extra $1,800 annually. This measure benefits all employees working as 911 Call Takers or Police Dispatchers, who are required by state law to have a current TCOLE certification. 

The City’s Human Resources Department (HRD) reported a steady increase in applicants for both roles following the market study, living wage increases and stipend. However, the number of individuals hired has failed to rise at the same rate as the increase in applications, and the City recognizes that more must be done to address ongoing vacancy rates. As of October 10, 2022, there remained 49 vacancies for 911 Call Takers and 21 vacancies for Police Dispatchers. 

Part of the reason vacancy rates remain stubbornly high is the length of time it takes to hire a 911 Call Taker or Dispatcher and get them fully trained – currently several months – plus the significant requirements that must be met – including a criminal background check, a drug test, and a psychological evaluation – before an individual can begin the job.  

Following Chief Chacon’s request for an updated review of salaries for compression, HRD completed the analysis of the specific pay bands, or “zoning”, of existing emergency call center employees. The recommendation, announced today, is that staff salaries should be placed in, or returned to, the zone they were in before the implementation of the recent $20 hourly living wage and pay scale movement. 

These changes, which will lead to more pay for some employees, will be reviewed with staff before implementation, expected by the end of December 2022. 

Meanwhile, HRD has met with APD to discuss hiring practices for these positions and made recommendations related to streamlining the process, and ways to include more applicants in the hiring process by excluding fewer applicants early in the review process. These conversations are ongoing. 

“Our Emergency Call Center is essential to safety in our community,” said Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon. “I will do whatever is necessary to address the issues.” 

Other steps already underway to address staff shortages and wait times include: 

  • Previously mandatory overtime has been reduced to provide emergency call center employees with a better work-life balance and stem the flow of departures.  

  • APD Sergeants are now offered optional overtime to come in on their days off to answer calls.   

  • HRD and the City’s Communications and Public Information Office is developing a Citywide recruitment campaign to promote job opportunities focusing first on 911 Call Takers and Dispatchers, among other roles with high vacancy rates. 

The City is aware that some callers to 911 are being placed on hold before their request for help is answered - although two out of every three calls are being answered within 15 seconds. The City’s advice to anyone placed on hold is do not hang up. Hanging up will delay the ability of a 911 Call Taker to answer an emergency call. Second, callers should try to remain calm and be prepared to provide their name, location, and nature of the emergency.

APD 911 call takers, who are civilian employees, gather important information that will ensure emergency services police arrive to the scene of the emergency as quickly as possible with intelligence on the situation they are responding to. They play a vital role of reassuring citizens, gathering vital information and documenting that information as quickly and accurately as possible.  

APD 911 dispatchers assign emergency calls to police officers in the field using Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD). They also perform computer clearances and information searches, and relay call information through direct radio communications to officers, who rely on dispatchers to be their eyes and ears when responding to emergency calls.  

Anyone interested in applying for a job as a 911 Call Taker or Police Dispatcher can do so here: bit.ly/3gt0W0Z.

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