Audit: Texas dispatch center subpar, but now improving
At one point in 2015, due to high call volumes and staffing shortages, the dispatch center didn’t answer one in five calls before the caller hung up
By Emilie Eaton
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio’s 911 dispatch center, which fields calls from the public about police and medical emergencies, fell far short of answering some calls in the last year, according to an audit presented Tuesday to the city’s Audit Committee.
At one point in 2015, due to high call volumes and staffing shortages, the dispatch center didn’t answer one in five calls before the caller hung up, potentially leaving residents without services, according to the audit.
That compares to an average 6 percent “abandoned call” rate at large 911 call centers nationwide, according to a 2009 study from George Mason University.
Additionally, during especially busy periods, some callers in San Antonio had to wait more than 30 seconds before someone picked up.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and Fire Chief Charles Hood addressed the problems Tuesday, reassuring city leaders that corrective actions have been taken and that service has dramatically improved since then.
“They’ve made significant progress through the year,” said Kevin Barthold, the city auditor who helped compile the report.
The audit, which reviewed operations between October 2014 and January 2016, came after a joint television investigation last year unveiled problems at the 911 dispatch center.
The center received more than 7,000 emergency and nonemergency calls during an average day in 2015, the audit noted.
In response to the investigation, the San Antonio Police Department hired an additional 30 police call takers, bringing the department to the standard of 113 such employees suggested by the Office of the City Auditor or above.
In addition, City Council in August approved the hiring of an additional 42 employees in fiscal year 2017. Those positions cost $2 million.
That move, as well as other changes, reduced the abandoned call rate at SAPD from a 22 percent average in 2015 to a 17 percent average last year, McManus said Tuesday. An abandoned call is defined as a caller who hangs up prior to speaking to a dispatcher, for a variety of reasons.
At the fire department, there are roughly 45 call takers, who are all licensed paramedics and sworn SAFD employees. The audit found that number was too low, given that each call taker works for 24 hours straight, seven hours of which are not spent answering calls.
“At any given time, two to four uniformed employees are on downtime and thus not answering calls, which contributes to the … standard not being met,” the report states.
The Office of the City Auditor suggested that the department implement a hybrid staffing model that uses both uniformed and civilian call takers, but Hood rejected that idea, saying civilians don’t know how to provide medical advice to callers over the phone.
Hood, in the report, said the fire department is instead looking into hiring a consultant to review 911 dispatch staffing and suggest alternatives.
The audit also suggested implementing an interlocal service agreement with the Bexar Metro 911 Network District, the agency that initially takes a 911 call before it is forwarded to the appropriate call center.
The city’s call center is part of the Bexar Metro 911 Network District, but no agreement exists in the case of a major emergency when San Antonio dispatchers would need to use Bexar County’s center.
The city’s Information Technology Services Department is forming an agreement now, which will be presented to City Council by September, according to the audit.
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