Memo: Shortage of 911 Dispatchers Slowing Phoenix PD Response Times

Inside Phoenix's Emergency Operations Center during NCAA Final Four weekend.
Inside Phoenix's Emergency Operations Center during NCAA Final Four weekend. Sean Holstege
It's no secret that the Phoenix Police Department has been stepping up its recruitment efforts in response to a serious officer shortage that's being experienced by law enforcement agencies across the state.

But the department is also short on people to answer and respond to 911 calls, which is both hurting call response times and creating financial problems for the city.

A memo sent to all members of the communications bureau and shared with Phoenix New Times by a source within the department shows how bad the situation has gotten.

"As you all know, we have been struggling to maintain minimum staffing for quite some time," police administrator Jesse Cooper wrote in the memo.

During the month of April, there were 36.5 vacant positions in the department, he noted.

"As a result, the department has fallen short of its goal to answer 911 calls within 10 seconds or less. In April, we answered our 911 calls at 82% when our goal is 90%. Remember, 90% is the minimum — we have always strived to be as close to 100% as we can — lives depend on our answer those calls immediately. We have not had answer times this low in many years."

Cooper also pointed out in the memo that in April alone, the Phoenix Police Department spent $2,238,765 on overtime pay for officers and communications operators in order to meet minimum staffing levels.

"As you can imagine, this is occurring every month and that is a large amount of funding that is not budgeted, so it is causing a serious fiscal situation for the city," he wrote.

The amount of overtime being worked by call-takers and dispatchers, he acknowledged, "is not healthy long-term for both fiscal reasons as well as the health/wellness of everyone."

However, it looks like the department is not going to get a break anytime soon: Cooper's memo states that while the department will honor vacation time that had been previously scheduled, "any additional discretionary time off requests will not be granted."

That policy will be re-evaluated after the new fiscal year begins on July 1, he added.     

How did things get this bad? Cooper's memo points to a hiring freeze that took place a few years ago and lasted for nine months as one cause contributing to the shortage.

"The Training Unit has been doing a great job of recruiting and hiring — they are starting approximately 6 people every 6 weeks which is helping, but with attrition we are struggling to get ahead," he wrote.

"Also, since it takes so many to get one hired, it is difficult to get ahead with having to interview and background so many to get a single hire."

But individual who shared the memo with New Times (and spoke on the condition of anonymity) also points to a change that took place several years ago — requiring new hires to be trained both as 911 operators, who take incoming calls from members of the public, and radio dispatchers, who convey information to officers in the field and let them know where they're needed.

That might seem inconsequential to outsiders, but the two roles require different skill sets. People who make good 911 operators don't necessarily make good radio dispatchers, and vice versa.

That change in department policy means that it takes significantly longer to train new hires, since they essentially have to learn to two separate jobs, the source said.

Phoenix Police Department spokesman Jonathan Howard confirmed in an email to New Times, "All new hires are being cross-trained to ensure a balanced schedule each shift. Of course, being trained in the two symbiotic areas requires some additional training time."

You can read the full memo regarding the operator shortage below:

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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.