St. Paul 911 Center Dials For Help

When St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington recently said the city's 911 operators and dispatchers were at their breaking point from stress and overwork, Kim Adamek knew exactly what he meant.

Answering 911 calls and dispatching police, fire and paramedics "can make you sweat through your clothes," said Adamek, a shift supervisor at the downtown Emergency Communications Center.

"The big thing we try to instill is you cannot make a mistake, you cannot miss anything and you cannot fall behind," she said.

Although many calls are mundane loud music, parking complaints and general police questions the center's 59 telecommunicators and dispatchers handle an average of 2,800 calls a day and know the next call could be a life-or-death crisis: a rape, car crash or a heart attack.

Staffing woes are making the job more stressful, Harrington and others say. Some City Council members have vowed to look for more funding, although the mayor's office disagrees that the situation is a crisis.

The ECC's authorized strength of 61 telecommunicators and police and fire dispatchers has remained constant since 1999, but calls for service increase 8 to 10 percent a year, said officer Paul Schnell, department spokesman.

As of Oct. 31, the ECC had received 849,681 calls this year. Eighty-five percent were emergency calls. The staff also manages non-emergency numbers, fielding calls for service around the clock.

Comparisons with other cities and a report from a consultant for the county show that St. Paul needs to hire at least 18 more ECC employees, Harrington said.

Harrington voiced his worries this month to a City Council budget committee, saying "burnout" is becoming a crisis among the city's emergency operators and dispatchers.

The staffing shortage means only one person can take vacation at a time, Harrington said. Keeping enough staff on duty leads to workers having to stay late or giving up days off.

"It may well be your time to go home at 11, but the phones are ringing off the hook and you're told, 'No, you're staying,' so you stay four or five hours and you're dead when you get home," Harrington said. "The burnout just compounds itself."

Employees work the extra hours because "they don't want their co-workers or citizens" in a pinch with "not having enough people to answer calls," said Emily DeBroux, another shift supervisor.

Compounding the problem is a high turnover rate, which has been a national problem in such centers. As a rule, the ECC is six to eight employees short a year of its authorized strength, Schnell said.

Sick leave at the ECC has been on the rise, said Dave Titus, St. Paul Police Federation president, who attributes it partly to stress and long working hours.

Taking a break, even to use the bathroom, is difficult, and during their eight- to 12-hour shifts, ECC workers usually eat their meals at their desks.

"You learn to swallow your food whole," said Lennea Lopez, emergency medical and fire dispatcher.

Several council members said they consider the shortage a crucial budget priority and vowed to scrounge for money in Mayor Randy Kelly's proposed 2005 budget to hire at least four more operators.

But the 911 matter is ensnared in political and financial issues that won't be easy to solve. Kelly pressed to keep the city's property tax levy flat for the 12th consecutive year and vetoed a council effort this fall to raise the levy. That move leaves a council majority that's been at odds with the mayor over public safety funding with few options for finding extra cash.

Plus, long-term funding for 911 operations is caught up in ongoing negotiations between the city and the county on a plan to merge emergency call centers.

Nevertheless, there is a belief that Harrington, who became police chief last summer, and his new administration are working on the problems, which is promising to the rank and file, Titus said.

Harrington's presentation alarmed Council Member Jay Benanav, who frequently accuses Kelly of short-changing the police and fire departments to avoid raising property taxes.

"This is life or death for many people," he said. "Why are we playing with people's lives?"

The staffing levels at centers in cities with similar populations to St. Paul vary from more than 130 authorized in Tampa, Fla., to 40 in Buffalo, N.Y. The centers in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., are staffed comparably to St. Paul with 55 and 57 operators and dispatchers respectively.

Minneapolis has an authorized strength of 76 police and fire operators and dispatchers.

St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry said council members will scrounge through the mayor's proposed 2005 budget to find enough money to hire four 911-call takers at a cost of about $50,000 each per year.

But Lantry said the council's options were severely limited in September when Kelly vetoed a council-approved measure that would have allowed the city to raise the property tax levy. She also noted that even if the council set aside money to hire more operators, Kelly would not be obligated to spend it.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Flaherty said the mayor's office would work with the council to find money to hire several more operators next year.

"There is nowhere near a crisis in the 911 center," he said. "Yes, there are management issues that need to be addressed with the quality of job candidates, supervision and training. But I think the best long-range solution is to work with Ramsey County to create a consolidated communications center."

St. Paul's call center issues are tangled up in discussions about merging 911 operations throughout Ramsey County, a complicated endeavor that faces political and financial hurdles.

County officials have expressed concerns about inheriting a short-staffed operation from St. Paul, which could burden the call takers on the county side.

Lantry urged the mayor to separate the merger issue and the staffing problems. While merger negotiations continue, she said there's no reason the city couldn't hire more operators.

"The amount of work these people do has gone up more than 25 percent and we've given them no additional resources, other than to ask them to work more and work harder," Lantry said.