Inside Berkeley’s 911 dispatch center, seen here in 2014 (file photo) Photo: Emilie Raguso

911 calls to Berkeley’s police and fire dispatch center are taking longer to get through due to chronic understaffing that is only likely to get worse, the city auditor reported in a recent analysis.

The Berkeley city auditor’s office wrote in the April 25 report that “consistent understaffing” resulted in $1 million in overtime costs in 2017, and that morale “is low and dispatchers feel unsupported” in Berkeley’s 911 center, known officially as the Communications Center: “There are some resources available for staff to manage stress; however, dispatchers often do not have time to access them.”

City Auditor Jenny Wong told the Berkeley City Council, in a memo prepared for an upcoming council meeting, that the dispatch center risks losing state funding if it can’t answer 911 calls faster. Wong has asked council for regular progress reports, every six months, until her audit recommendations have been addressed.

Monique Frost, who runs the city’s dispatch center, worked closely with the auditor’s office while its report was being prepared. Frost said there were no surprises in the audit: “We’ve been living it,” she said Tuesday afternoon. Frost said she’s already expanded the center’s wellness program and will continue to forge ahead on boosting staffing. She’s also overhauled the city’s phone tree for non-emergency calls, and an improved version will roll out soon, she said.

“I have to make sure my dispatchers can handle 911 calls,” she said. “We have to find ways to work smarter because we still have to get the job done.”

Berkeley’s 911 center answers all emergency and non-emergency requests for police, fire and medical services in the city, and dispatches first responders to those calls. The audit looked at call data from 2013-17 and spoke with “comm center” staff to learn about their workflow.

The state requires dispatch centers to answer 95% of their 911 calls within 15 seconds, according to the April audit. In 2017, Berkeley’s dispatchers fell short of that target, answering 89% of the calls within that time period. It was the second time over the five years reviewed that city dispatchers did not meet the 15-second target, according to the audit.

Berkeley missed the state target, requiring that 911 calls are answered within 15 seconds, twice over the past five years. Source: Berkeley City Auditor’s Office

According to Wong’s report for council, the city budget allows for 33 full-time positions in the comm center. That includes 28 dispatchers, four supervisors and one manager. The city has not increased staffing levels since 2004, though call volume and city population has grown.

“At the end of May 2018, the Police Department had only filled 23.5 of the 28 authorized full-time equivalent dispatcher positions and was actively recruiting for new hires. In addition to civilian dispatchers, the Center utilizes three additional Police personnel who work overtime as call takers to meet minimum staffing levels on an as-needed basis and dependent on their availability,” according to the audit team.

According to one national standard, Berkeley should have a “minimum of three call takers on shift during normal hours and four calls takers on shift during busy hours.” But the city has just two call takers during normal hours and three during busy hours, according to the audit.

Annual calls for service to BPD have risen steadily over the past five years, increasing about 10% between 2012 and 2017, according to department data. In 2017, BPD handled 81,713 calls for service, which “includes phone calls to BPD requesting service, calls resulting from an officer personally observing a situation requiring service, and direct contacts to BPD by a person requesting help,” according to one city report.

The auditor’s report said calls into the dispatch center itself rose from 184,000 in 2013 to 256,000 in 2017, which is a 40% increase. That includes emergency, non-emergency and outbound calls: “The majority of this increase came from a rise in non-emergency calls into the Center and outbound calls from the Center. Call volume data does not explain why there was an increase and the Police Department could not provide support for the increase.”

Among her recommendations, Wong said the Berkeley Police Department — which oversees the dispatch center — should do a staffing analysis to determine the right staffing level for the city; develop a recruitment and training plan for dispatchers; cut down on OT; and “relieve the burden placed on overworked staff.”

To improve wellness, she said the department should create a stress management program and have more regular meetings with supervisors, police officers and firefighters.

Wong told Berkeleyside on Tuesday that the audit began, under former City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan, as a look at staffing challenges throughout the city. That continues to be an issue and will be the focus of future audits, she said.

“This problem is probably not a unique problem for the city of Berkeley,” Wong said Tuesday, of low staffing levels at the dispatch center. “Other cities also have a challenge in recruiting and retaining dispatchers.”

All city dispatchers in the 911 center are trained on four “desks,” Wong said, which include the role of call taker, handling calls that come in; the records desk, which involves looking up records; and also dispatching police and fire resources on those respective desks. One of the audit findings, she said, was that recruits were able to make it through the training for several of these roles, but fell short and left the program when it came to the police desk. Wong suggested that the city create a position that requires only call taker training, particularly because it is failing to meet the national standard in that area.

Wong said she’d been pleased at how cooperative the police department was throughout the audit.

“We’re going to look to them as a partner,” she said. “They were very receptive to this audit and I look forward to working with them on implementing these recommendations.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...