Former EMT to lead troubled Ariz. 911 call center
Sharon McDonough has had a central role in repairing Tucson's 911 center during a turbulent time
The Arizona Daily Star
TUCSON, Ariz. — City officials recently appointed Sharon McDonough the director of Tucson's historically troubled Public Safety Communications Department, the office that houses the city's 911 call center.
McDonough has over three decades of experience working for the city, having first started her career in 1990 as an EMT for the Tucson Fire Department. She most recently served as the interim deputy director of the 911 center under Chad Kasmar, who was promoted to chief of police in late December.
Officials and staffers describe McDonough as an "absolute team player" who has had a central role in repairing Tucson's 911 center after entering the Public Safety Communications Department in 2021 — one of the most turbulent times for the department because of issues such as inadequate training and supervision, and general gaps in service.
She officially stepped into the director's role just over a week ago and will make $170,000 a year, slightly less than some of her predecessors in the 911 office.
"I am so happy to see that this amazing public servant with so many years of experience — so talented, so committed to this city of Tucson and so knowledgeable — is taking the lead in our public safety communications department," Mayor Regina Romero said. "I'm really happy to have this opportunity to move forward with a person who has been serving the city of Tucson for so many years."
McDonough's arrival at the department in April 2021 came just months after a damning study was released that showed then-director Jamie O'Leary's leadership style consisted of "dominance, anger (and) sarcasm," according to employee accounts.
In addition to "inadequate training," the 911 center was plagued by low morale, high employee turnover and chronic understaffing that impacted answer times.
O'Leary resigned in early 2021, leaving Kasmar and McDonough to pick up the pieces at the 911 center that was in "critical but stable condition" at the time. The department had less than half of the 219 employees needed to fully staff the call center, for example, and that figure was constantly dwindling.
McDonough spearheaded efforts to improve the workplace culture and retain employees by creating room for advancement within the department, meaning there was a clear path toward promotions for staffers who could also get guidance from supervisors about how to move forward.
"Instead of us thinking of them as a side business, we're trying to help them re-label themselves as a true community safety partner of great importance to the system," McDonough said about her efforts last year. "Our hope is that they feel that way, they want to stay, and that our numbers go up and we get our staffing more stabilized. "
Beefed-up recruitment efforts under McDonough's leadership — along with city officials approving a bump in pay for 911 operators — slashed the department's vacancy rate by about 10% last year, as well as attracted over 30 new trainees to bolster the staff.
McDonough called the influx in recruits a "blessing and a curse" because existing staffers have to spend time training them, which was one of the factors that caused Tucson's 911 answer times to be slower than the national standard for most of 2021.
The slowdown is temporary, however, and the increased staffing level that has resulted from McDonough's efforts is expected to ultimately improve the city's 911 services. Staffers said employee turnover also decreased during McDonough's time as interim deputy director.
"If we keep doing these things and keep improving these things, next year we will end up with more (staffers) than we had and eventually get to a really stable level that allows us to sustain, keep people and promote them," McDonough said in November. "It started with a good pay raise, and it continues with some level of acknowledgement about how important these people are to the system."
Recruitment efforts will likely remain a priority for the new 911 director as she settles into her new role in the coming months. The department still only had about 90 fully trained employees at the end of last year, which is just over 40% of the staffers needed.
The department will also have to improve its 911 answer times in order to meet the national standards, though council members all voiced their confidence in McDonough's ability to achieve those goals before unanimously confirming her appointment Feb. 23.
"I love the city of Tucson, I love the work that we do, and I know how important it is that we collaborate to get things done," McDonough said about her appointment. "I'm so proud to have the good fortune and opportunity to be part of this dynamic (and) forward-thinking leadership team, and I'm excited to be here. I really look forward to the work. Thank you for your faith in me."
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