St. Louis mayor launches plan to combine fire, police dispatch centers

Some city and police leaders have pushed to combine the 911 systems for at least 15 years, according to one 2008 study on consolidation

Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — In response to months of complaints about St. Louis 911 callers being left on hold, Mayor Tishaura O. Jones announced plans Thursday to combine the city police and fire emergency call centers to eliminate a system that, Jones says, has created a 911 bottleneck in the city for years.

The Jones administration announced Thursday that the city aims to move its fire department 911 dispatchers to the police department's downtown call center by October.

In the long term, interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom said the city plans to combine all dispatchers into one unit under the St. Louis Emergency Management Agency and build a multimillion-dollar facility to house them.

Complaints about 911 delays and dispatcher shortages have been at the center of reports in the Post-Dispatch and other media for months.

"After years of neglect, it's no secret that our 911 system needs our support," Jones said Thursday after a tour of the police emergency call center where she observed dispatchers at work. "Like many St. Louis residents, I know what it's like to hear gunshots in my neighborhood and wait on hold for a response or not want to call at all because we know we're going to be on hold."

Jones added that the problem has been "festering for years," and the bottleneck will not be solved with a quick fix.

Now, all calls to the city's 911 system come to the police dispatch center. If EMS or the fire department is needed, police dispatchers transfer the calls to the fire dispatch center. Protocol requires police dispatchers to stay on the line through the EMS and fire calls.

Some city and police leaders have pushed to combine the 911 systems for at least 15 years, according to one 2008 study on consolidation. But the situation has grown more dire this year with severe shortages of police dispatchers, the Post-Dispatch has reported.

In recent weeks, some peak-traffic shifts have had just two dispatchers tasked with answering all 911 calls for the city, along with all nonemergency police and alarm calls.

Dispatchers also are responsible for managing police call assignments and radio traffic but for months have regularly had to handle double the intended workload by covering two police districts at once, which they call "patching," according to interviews with staff.

"It gets to be too much — the stress and the exhaustion from not having enough people there to do the job," police dispatcher Erricka Moorehead told the Post-Dispatch Thursday. "It's infuriating for people calling 911, but patching districts also isn't safe for officers because it can be confusing and overwhelming."

Moorehead has been a St. Louis police dispatcher for five years and has received several commendations. She gave her two weeks' notice to the department this week after realizing the pay was not matching the increasing workload. She took a job as a retail asset protection specialist, where she'll be making more than she did with the city.

Moorehead isn't the only experienced dispatcher who has left. The police dispatch center is budgeted for about 89 positions, but 34 of those jobs are vacant, Isom said Thursday.

The consequences of those vacancies put St. Louis' 911 system far below national industry standards, which say at least 90% of 911 calls should be answered in 10 seconds or less. From February through May, about 64% of St. Louis 911 calls were answered within that timeframe.

More than 5% of 911 callers in that period waited more than two minutes for a dispatcher to answer, according to St. Louis police statistics.

Jones said Thursday she hoped getting rid of the redundancies of the bifurcated 911 system, plus focusing on hiring and improving technology will help.

"St. Louis deserves an emergency response system that functions," Jones said Thursday.

Changes in stages

Moving fire and police dispatchers to the same space this fall is only the first step.

Though they will share office space, fire and police dispatchers will still be using separate 911 software management systems.

Isom said Thursday the city aims to move them all to a shared, up-to-date 911 software, but that will take time. Once the city selects a system, it could take another year to install and use it, Isom said.

The city police 911 center facility is aging, so Isom said the city wants to build a facility for the new combined center.

That project is on the city's list of capital improvements and is estimated to cost about $32 million. So far, the Jones administration has not said what funding source would pay for the 911 overhaul.

In November 2019, the city hired FGM Architects to create a design for a new facility, but the contract was paused when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. From design to completion, the project is estimated to take about three years.

Besides cost, separate union representation for fire and police dispatchers could pose another barrier to the plan.

Jeff Roorda, union business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, said the city did not confer with the union on the proposals. A representative of the union for city firefighters did not return a request for comment.

"We desperately would like to see some action on properly staffing 911," Roorda said. "But it's absurd we're not at the table, and frankly, it's plain illegal to do this without consulting the union representation."

'Can't wait that long'

Moorehead, the dispatcher who this week decided to leave the police department, said the city needs immediate action on top of the long-term plans.

"We can't wait that long," she said.

The city should speed up the hiring process for dispatchers, Moorehead said, which typically takes about four months. Dispatchers then go through about 11 months of training.

Meanwhile, Moorehead said pay has been a key reason many experienced dispatchers leave.

The city under former Mayor Lyda Krewson approved a pay bump in February for dispatchers, raising the starting salary from about $31,000 to about $38,000.

But that increase applied only to new employees. Many dispatchers with five to 10 years on the job still make about $40,000, little more than those with no experience.

"We know that that is still not enough," Jones said of the pay scale.

Jones said she is reviewing a recent city salary survey.

"We know that the city oftentimes is the employer of last resort for a lot of people, and people have choices now," Jones said. "So we have to take a look at our pay if we're going to try to retain our employees and recruit new ones."

Moorehead said she will miss the public service aspect of being a dispatcher. She has her own nonprofit, 911 for Kidz, which aims to teach children about how to dial 911.

"I didn't want to go, but it got to a point where I had to," she said.

The Jones administration is encouraging anyone looking for work to apply.

And if 911 delays persist, Isom says the most important thing to remember is not to hang up and call back.

"If you hang up," he said, "you will be put at the end of the line."


(c)2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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