News : Overtime Cuts Lead to Longer Hold Times
Austin, Feb 24, 2014 -- An internal City of Austin email reveals a deliberate plan to save money on overtime by reducing the hours emergency call takers work. The email was written October 31, 2013 by a call center assistant manager to an Austin Police staff member.
The email refers to a new division spending plan created in June 2013 and reads in part:
‘This initiative was purposefully aimed at lowering our 911 Answer Rate [Service Level] in order to be more fiscally responsible and to seek out cost saving measures associated with the 2012 4th Quarter. As a result, we spent a lesser amount of monies towards phone coverage hours directed at 911 services. While we accomplished our target percentage rate, it came at the cost of extended 911 hold times."
Records show 5,693 calls from July to September 2012 were placed on hold. Callers listened to a looping recording of a voice advising them not to hang up. The same period last year, the number shot up to 20,477.
Asst. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley who oversees much of the budget and staffing-related issues in the police department responded saying he was not aware of specific numbers related to the reduced overtime plan.
Changes are already in the works in Austin’s Emergency Communications division. In January Commander Julie O’Brien began leading the mostly civilian division with the help of one police lieutenant. Manley said their role is to develop a top-to-bottom needs report in time for this year’s budget requests.
Cmdr. O’Brien told KXAN Investigator Robert Maxwell it is "not a good thing" to have 20,000 callers on hold, but O’Brien added, "I will draw attention to the fact there were hundreds of thousands of callers answered in less than 10 seconds. We’re not satisfied, and it’s always something you try and work with."
The goal is to answer a call in no more than 10 seconds. Overall Austin’s 911 call center is making that goal more than 90% of the time, equalling the national standard. In January it was 94.2%, records show. In December, 2013, it was 93.9%. Two years ago, before call-taker overtime cuts, the call answer rate in Austin was 96%.
Keeping up standards has proven to be a tall order. Over the last two fiscal years, records show Austin’s Police Operations Support/ Communications Division received no increases to its total budget.
Commander O’Brien said she commends the work her staff is doing and serves as their advocate when it comes to asking for more money. Call center funding choices are left to the Austin police department’s executive team. It forwards needs recommendations to the city manager’s office before each budget cycle. The city manger drafts a budget based on departmental priorities and sends the draft to the city council for consideration.
Assistant Police Chief Brian Manley told KXAN, during the 2014 budget talks, "We did have requests for call takers and dispatchers. When we looked across the department last year, the issues we were facing, some of the other departments that had significant needs, the prioritization did not include placing the communication personnel at the top of the list."
Records show in 2013 APD’s communications division requested 26 new call-taker positions and listed them as a number one priority. None were funded. This year, the budget request included 10 new call-takers as well as up to six new supervisor positions. The idea behind hiring new supervisors was to return existing call-takers covering those support jobs to the front line. Again, no new positions were funded.
Cmdr. O’Brien said the current vacancy rate at the communications center is at 12. That includes eight dispatcher positions, three call-taker spots and one part-time position. While the division is constantly training recruits (who can be as young as 18 years old), it’s wrestling with a turnover rate of 30%, and they’re almost always hiring. Staff is also now reviewing a new method of training aimed at keeping staff longer. A decision on that is expected this spring.
Last year, city budget documents show Austin’s 911 call center received 797,524 calls – up more than 13,000 from the year before. Six percent more of those were emergency or urgent calls where call-takers are required to stay on the line longer. That factors into longer wait times for other callers. In fact, the average time to process an emergency call rose five seconds last year to one minute and 17 sseconds, budget records show.
As well, call center managers said call load increases are now commonplace. Those include a spike in calls during Austin’s weekday rush hour or during an unpredictable event like a brush fire or flood when multiple people call in one emergency.There is a protocol in place to handle call spikes. City staff said for every event, Emergency Communications uses any combination of three components:
Asst. Chief Manley said he remains confident in the ability of the emergency communications center to handle the next big disaster.
"We’re able to do that, maybe in not the most efficient way because we’re having to use overtime and we’re having to have people come back, stay late after their shift, but we’re able to make that part of the Department work. Other parts, we don’t have that ability, and we’re facing critical needs there as well."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About City of Austin:
Austin is the capital of Texas and the seat of Travis County. Located in Central Texas and the American Southwest, it is the 11th-largest city in the United States of America and the fourth-largest city in the state of Texas.
Published: Thursday, February 27, 2014