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Fresno Needs 40 More Additional Emergency Service Dispatchers

Crime & Punishment

Fresno Needs 40 More Additional Emergency Service Dispatchers

Fresno’s 9-1-1 emergency system has high monthly call volume and is understaffed leading to long wait times beyond national norms.

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Police auditor John Gliatta is raising the stakes in Fresno’s battle over policy-shaping sales tax proposals.

Gliatta is doing so by focusing a portion of his 2018 Second Quarter report on the Police Department’s handling of 9-1-1 calls.

Gliatta’s conclusion: Fresnans calling 9-1-1 are understandably intent on prompt service; the Police Department is swamped with 9-1-1 calls; the department for a variety of reasons has fewer resources to devote to 9-1-1 calls; something’s got to give, be it finances at City Hall or expectations among the public.

“It is important to recognize the fact (that) the timely answering of 9-1-1 calls is the foundation of all law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services,” Gliatta writes. Yet, the Fresno Police Department “is performing below the minimum state requirements for 9-1-1 answer times.”

The industry benchmark is 95% of 9-1-1 calls answered within 15 seconds. Gliatta says the Fresno Police Department monthly average in 2017 was only 72.8% of 9-1-1 calls answered within 15 seconds.

Gliatta has a solution: Hire more emergency service dispatchers (ESDs), then commit to financially sustaining the improved system.

Gliatta’s 9-1-1 report comes during a political season in which Fresnans will be asked more than once if they want to tax themselves to pay for better public services.

On a wider scale, there is the Nov. 6 ballot measure that would repeal Senate Bill 1 (the state gas tax) designed to fund better roads. SB 1 would produce millions of dollars every year for Fresno County’s road system.

There is the Fresno for Parks measure that seeks a three-eighths of a cent boost to the local sales tax to fund an improved parks/arts system. The tax boost would last for 30 years and raise more than $1 billion. Fresno for Parks supporters surprised just about everyone by producing enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Next step: Convince the City Council on Aug. 9 to send the measure to the voters.

Finally, there is Mayor Lee Brand. He proposed last month a half-cent sales tax hike to fund improvements to the parks and public safety systems. The Mayor said both desperately need a helping hand. But Brand was soon forced to withdraw his proposal. It turns out that he didn’t have the council votes to get his idea on the November ballot. Some council members were full of the anti-tax sentiment that motivates the SB 1 repeal effort. Other council members want lots of money for parks while figuring the cops and firefighters can stand pat for a while (it’s fair to say a substantial number of parks supporters see cops as the cause of social instability, not part of the solution). The word now coming out of City Hall is that Brand will soon try again to bridge the widening gap between parks and public safety that now plagues Fresno politics.

If the parks advocates currently have the upper hand in messaging, it’s because their story has the immense advantage of simplicity. This was evident on Friday when Fresno for Parks hosted a party at Radio Park to celebrate its successful petition drive. In addition to speeches of self-congratulation, the event featured free food and lots of kids having fun on a portable water slide. The message: Parks make everyone happy.

Public safety funding is a much harder tale to tell, especially in this era of shortened attention spans. The police auditor in his Second Quarter report bravely plunges into No Man’s Land.

Gliatta begins by noting that he has met with more than 35 local groups and organizations since January. The agenda each time: The Fresno Police Department in all its complexity.

“Many of the groups did not have specific complaints or concerns about interactions with FPD,” Gliatta writes. “However, several common general complaints were the difficulty experienced when dialing 9-1-1 and officer response time.”

To which I thought: Imagine that – whatever Fresnans may think of cops when life is sunny and bright, when things suddenly go bad they want the police to be at their immediate beck and call.

Gliatta writes that the complaints centered on the amount of time that elapsed before the 9-1-1 call was answered or being placed on hold for a long time.

Gliatta quotes the Police Department: “Almost all requests for assistance from our community originate with a phone call, and over one-third of those come in as 9-1-1 calls. Only by answering those critical requests for service as quickly as possible can we maintain a level of trust with (the) community, building confidence in our ability to keep them safe and providing a level of customer service that is expected of our agency.”

Gliatta in May began meeting with police officers in charge of the department’s communications center.

“The FPD was not surprised with these complaints as they had already identified the issue and were making attempts to address the matter for quite some time,” Gliatta writes.

The police auditor found the problem to be easy to explain: Immense call volume combined with woeful understaffing in the communications center.

“In 2009 the number of 9-1-1 and non-emergency calls received by FPD was 771,742 with an allotted staffing level of 95 ESDs ,” Gliatta writes. “In the most recent 12 month period where calls were reported, May 1, 2017 to April 30, 2018, there were 972,855 calls received with an allotted staffing level of 87 ESDs. These numbers reflect an increase of 26% in call volume and a decrease of 9% in allotted ESDs staffing levels.”

Gliatta writes that San Diego, which has almost three times the population of Fresno, gets about the same number of calls to its police department. Fresno’s violent crime rate per capita is 62% higher than San Diego’s.

Gliatta understands that 2009 was a time of recession and citywide layoffs. The Police Department had to retrench like all other city departments. The city’s financial outlook is much stronger these days,. However, Gliatta writes, Police Department staffing levels “have yet to be corrected although additional ESDs were requested and denied. FPD estimates that an additional 40 ESDs would be needed to adequately staff” the communications center.

Gliatta writes that four people are currently going through ESD training. This training can take up to 12 months.

In recent weeks, Gliatta writes, the longest hold time for a 9-1-1 calls was 7 minutes, 3 seconds. The longest hold time for a non-emergency call was 18 minutes.

“In the event a caller is facing a life or death situation, being on hold for seven minutes could be a deciding factor in the outcome of the situation,” Gliatta writes.

Gliatta concludes his 9-1-1 system review with two recommendations.

He suggests the airing of Public Service Announcements to clarify what constitutes a 9-1-1 call and which calls for service should go to the non-emergency phone number.

And he wants Chief Jerry Dyer to explore options for an immediate boost in ESD staffing. If that isn’t possible, then Dyer should prioritize such a request in the 2019-2020 budget.

Gliatta writes: “Although FPD did request an enhancement in the recently passed budget, and it appeared in their top 20 requests, the request was not ranked high enough for it to be considered and approved in view of the budget limitations.”

Finally, keep in mind that a prompt response to 9-1-1 calls is just half of the equation. You then have to have enough sworn officers (adequately equipped, I might add) to come to the aid of the stricken caller.

Gliatta writes that he will “address the officer response time in a future quarterly report.”

In light of all the politics now surrounding public service funding, a minimum of three months is a long time to wait for what surely will be an insightful report on officer response challenges.

Gliatta as police auditor reports to City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter. The City Manager might want to ask Gliatta to produce a special report and deliver it ASAP. The public deserves promptness on this issue, too.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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