Overworked and understaffed, Richmond 911 dispatch requires poise under pressure: ‘Some people can handle it, and some people can’t.’
on October 15, 2023
It’s Friday night around 7 p.m. at Richmond’s Communications Center and Yvonne Lima is just 30 minutes into her 12-hour graveyard shift.
The center, which answers emergency and non-emergency phone calls for both Richmond and El Cerrito, is in charge of dispatching police, fire, and medical services.
“911 what’s the address of your emergency?” echoes through the room, which is smaller than the 911 dispatch centers depicted on television.
Brief alarm sounds blare in unison every 30 seconds from speakers set up at each desk, followed by frantic keyboard typing and mouse clicks on computers at each dispatcher station.
Next to Lima, a fellow dispatcher calmly assures a caller who heard two shots fired on Gaynor Avenue that police units are en route.
“Does he have a gun? Did you see the gun in his hand?” the dispatcher asks before advising: “Keep the doors and the windows locked.”
“Unfortunately, with the graveyard shift, we come in and there’s no slow period,” Lima said. “We come in right in the heat and heart of everything going on.”
Lima, a supervisor at the center, also has had to take on dispatcher duties, as overtime and mental burnout has left the dispatch center severely understaffed.
On this night in September, Lima is monitoring a “full house” of dispatchers, but knows that at any moment she may have to jump in to help dispatch calls. Four dispatchers are on duty with one in training — three being the minimum needed per 12-hour shift, though five is preferred.
A dispatcher at the center works five to six days a week depending on scheduling, with standard 12-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or vice versa.
The center is operating with about half the staff it needs, just nine dispatchers out of the allocated 17 positions.
“Right now, because we are so shorthanded, the supervisors really aren’t able to supervise,” said Lt. Donald Patchin, the Communications Center manager.
Richmond hired a consultant two years ago to review its emergency services. Matrix Consulting Group issued its report earlier this year, finding the Communications Center had a total of 9,531 hours of overtime, and 13 dispatchers working a total of 794 extra 12-hour shifts for the year.
Kevin Tisdell, vice president of the Richmond chapter for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, knows the overwork and burnout could lead to mistakes.
“I know dispatching is a high pressure job,” Tisdell said. “When you’re working 12-to-18-hour days it is hard to keep that accuracy.”
Lima is answering about 200 to 350 calls a shift in addition to her supervising duties, which include giving dispatch staff breaks and overseeing the entire center. She said the extra duties add stress to an already difficult job.
“If there’s not an overtime person, I’m also responsible for taking an assignment, and my supervisor duties will either be done at the same time that I’m working an assignment or they have to wait until maybe tomorrow night when I have an overtime person,” Lima said. “Supervisors are working bodies here.”
Understaffing and worker retention at 911 dispatch centers are a nationwide problem. Between 2019 and 2022, 1 in 4 jobs at public safety communications centers were vacant according to a report by the National Association of State 911 Administrators and International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.
“The short staffing doesn’t discriminate,” Lima said. “It’s not isolated for Richmond Police Department. It’s everywhere, every dispatch center.”
Lima and Patchin said only 1 out of 6 dispatchers in training will likely make it past the yearlong training that’s needed to dispatch on their own.
“You can watch 911 centers on TV, and you think it’s ‘911, what is your emergency,’ but you really have to be able to multitask,” Patchin said. “You have to be able to develop the skill of being able to listen to the radio while talking on the phone, responding, doing theoretically four or five things at once at times. And some people are able to get it, and some people aren’t.”
Recruiting dispatchers has been difficult because the long hours and pay are not in line with the immense responsibility that comes with the job. The recent approval of a Community Crisis Response Program pilot will add even more responsibility as dispatchers will need new training to determine which emergency service to dispatch calls to, police or the CCRP team, which will handle wellness checks and mental health calls, among others.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, California ranks first in the nation for dispatcher pay, with an annual median income of $65,000. A recent Indeed job posting for a Richmond Communications Dispatcher listed a starting salary between $5,510 and $6,697 a month, which is at about the state median of $66,000 a year.
Despite the eight vacancies, the center is hopeful it will be able to add more dispatchers in the near future, with four people currently in the hiring process. Some won’t last long, given the burnout. Others will thrive as Lima has.
She said the city is more focused now on employee wellness. Dispatchers can turn to a peer support program and are given numbers to call for assistance when they feel overwhelmed.
But even for veterans, the job remains challenging and continues well after the shift ends.
“I have calls from 15 years ago that are fresh and I hope I never take again,” Lima said. “You try that work-life balance, and some people can handle it, and some people can’t.”
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