When Pamela Kennedy heard the flower pot on her window sill break, she froze.
It was 3:30 a.m. and an intruder was in her home. The 60-year-old nurse said she eventually made her voice as deep as possible and yelled, “What’s going on out there?” Then she called 911.
The city’s emergency response system froze, too. Kennedy waited five minutes and 28 seconds for an answer, then hung up. She called back and waited another two minutes and 38 seconds before talking to an emergency dispatcher for the first time.
By then, the intruder had taken off. Her terror had turned to shock. And anger.
“I thought, ‘Thank God I wasn’t having a heart attack,’” she said. “I’d be dead on the floor. Luckily, I didn’t – no, I just had an intruder in my home.”
The district attorney’s office later let her listen to the call. The sound of her voice – shaking, hollow – made her cry.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she said.
That was in Bankers Hill in September.
Two months later, in her home near the La Jolla Country Club, the same thing happened to “Heather” – VOSD agreed not to use her real name to maintain her privacy.
At 2:30 a.m., she woke to an intruder in her room. She yelled to her stepdad, who came out of his room and scared the intruders out the front door.
He called 911 and waited four minutes and 40 seconds before speaking to a dispatcher.
Ironically, the long wait didn’t prevent the police from catching the suspect.
Assuming they didn’t have much time to flee, the two intruders hid under neighbors’ cars instead of running away. The cops arrived quickly, and found them both. The pair had broken into a home in Pacific Beach earlier that night, too.
We’ve previously investigated emergency response times – the clock for those numbers begins after calls are picked up. But now, San Diego’s emergency dispatch system – where the calls get answered to set a response in motion – is in crisis.
People in life-threatening situations are waiting minutes to let someone know they’re in danger.
The police department has acknowledged the issue, emphasizing that its monthly averages for 911 wait times now routinely pass 10 seconds, higher than the department’s standard.
The national standard is for 90 percent of calls to be answered within 10 seconds, and 95 percent within 20 seconds.
When Kennedy needed help in September, the average wait time was 17 seconds. When an intruder came into Heather’s home in November, the average 911 call rang for 16 seconds before it was answered.
But average response times are at best incomplete, and at worst misleading.
You can have a relatively low average time even with extremely long waits on just a few calls. Emergency call times spike in rare instances and for relatively short periods. Given the monthly volume of calls the department receives, extreme waits have small effects on the monthly average.
Yet that average monthly wait time is little comfort if you’re one of the outliers.
Six weeks ago, Voice of San Diego made a public records request for the number of times the 911 response time surpassed five minutes and 10 minutes, respectively, over the previous six months. SDPD has not yet provided those records.
Nonetheless, it acknowledges that excessive waits like Kennedy’s happen. It just doesn’t know how often.
“The fact that five-minute wait times occur, we acknowledge that,” said San Diego Police Department spokesman Scott Wahl. “We aren’t denying it – but last year we had 1.4 million calls. Unfortunately, those outliers occur. They are extremely rare, with the total call volume we receive.”
But it’s impossible to tell just how rare without the records, which SDPD says it will eventually provide.
A New Old Problem
Two weeks ago, a Mira Mesa family drove its wounded infant to the hospital after two 911 calls went unanswered for 30 seconds each. The family’s startled dog had bitten the infant, who was declared dead at the hospital.
An Allied Gardens family in March waited seven minutes for a 911 response while its garage was on fire.
In response to public outcry following the infant death, the San Diego Police Department has acknowledged its average emergency response wait times have breached its goal of an average wait time below 10 seconds.
“We’re going through a period where we aren’t where we need to be for public safety, or for our standards,” Wahl said. He said the department had historically achieved its 10-second goal.
SDPD’s emphasis on average wait times, however, obscures the problem’s most frightening consequences.
Dispatchers could answer calls quickly for 23 and a half hours of the day and have low average waits, regardless of what happens in the other 30 minutes of the day. But if you call in that half hour, the average wait time is no comfort.
In other words, a seven-second increase in average wait times does not mean each caller waited an average seven seconds longer. Instead, waits spike for short periods, and the effects are felt by the unlucky few who experience an emergency during those periods.
“I’m acknowledging that two-minute, five-minute, seven-minute wait times, those do occur,” Wahl said.
One question is how often they occur, and another is whether that’s more frequent than it used to be. Wahl said the department does not know. He said the focus is on average waits, not eliminating outliers.
Chris Carver, operations director for the National Emergency Number Association, said 911 wait times of four and five minutes are so far outside the scope of what’s reasonable, they will spike the department’s averages on their own.
“It should be incredibly infrequent,” he said. “There are very few communities in the United States where you hear of consistent outlier times for 911 calls. This is a challenge that most communities have figured out how to address successfully.”
It’s impossible to completely eliminate excessive waits, he said. If an oil tanker explodes on a highway or a tornado touches down, calls will surge to points that dispatchers sometimes cannot handle. But random moments when call times spike without a clear instigator are exceedingly rare.
“If they weren’t, my phone would be ringing off the hook,” he said. “I can safely say that dramatically extensive 911 call hold times are not prevalent across the country.”
SDPD has roughly 20 unfilled emergency dispatcher positions out of the 130 in the city’s budget.
Wahl said the department is trying to fill those positions as quickly as possible to deal with the increase in wait times.
But recruiting, vetting, hiring and training officers takes time.
Mike Zucchet, general manager for the city’s white-collar union, the Municipal Employees Association, which represents dispatchers, said the multi-step process winnows away would-be applicants.
The city might receive 1,000 applications for 20 openings, Zucchet said. But 500 might not meet minimum qualifications, and another 200 might fail a test the city gives called CritiCall, used to see whether applicants can handle the high-stress job.
After background checks, a fitness test and polygraph, more candidates drop out. Of those who remain, many will have found other work in the meantime. The city could end up sending 10 applicants into training, from which only six will emerge ready to start.
In all that time, the city might have lost that many existing dispatchers.
The city hasn’t been able to reach its budgeted staffing levels for three years. The city for three years has exercised its right to force dispatchers at times to work overtime just to maintain the service levels it offers today.
“This has been the story throughout mandatory overtime,” Zucchet said. “They say, ‘We have these applicants,’ but then all of those things conspire to make those very difficult positions to fill.”
The city has taken some steps to fill the gap. Mayor Kevin Faulconer authorized Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman to do polygraphs and background checks for dispatchers separate from sworn officers, which sped up the process. Dispatcher positions are now perpetually open – the city doesn’t need to re-open the position at certain times.
Police officers can now work overtime to fill dispatch positions. And before January, city staffers who are former 911 dispatchers and now work in other departments couldn’t work overtime manning emergency calls. That’s been changed, allowing people like Monica Munoz — a spokesperson for the city’s public works department — to moonlight as a 911 dispatcher.
“It just depends on my schedule, but I’ll do five-hour shifts on weekends and a couple hours a night on some weekdays,” she said. “The police department called me in January and asked if I could help, since I’m already trained.”
All of the city’s dispatchers also recently received $1,000 merit bonuses. Faulconer went to the 911 dispatch center to announce the bonuses.
“That’s the stuff that hadn’t been happening until Faulconer got personally involved,” Zucchet said.
Dispatchers have already negotiated raises, but they don’t take effect until 2018, after the five-year pay freeze mandated by the city’s pension reform measure runs its course. That measure has also made San Diego’s the only dispatchers in the county who don’t get pensions.
Yet hiring for the open positions might not solve the problem.
“Does filling 21 positions make this problem go away? Not necessarily,” Wahl said. “Does it mean there’s never going to be a long wait? I don’t know.”
Wait times spike for a number of reasons, he said.
Dispatchers are staffed based on typical call volumes at a given time. If calls surge when there aren’t many dispatchers on staff, wait times could go up.
But wait times could also get longer even if there aren’t that many calls, but the calls that do come in are overly complicated. Maybe multiple callers don’t speak English, or there are a handful of calls that take 15 minutes each, keeping dispatchers from clearing other calls on the line.
During the 30-minute period covering Kennedy’s break-in, calls didn’t even spike that much, Wahl said. There were 47 total calls, 23 of which were emergencies.
“The tendency is to say, ‘There was a surge in calls,’ or, ‘We are understaffed,’” Wahl said. “But it’s so hard to find a comparative analysis that says why wait times went up at a given time.”
Carver, the national 911 expert, said a surge in average call times is an invitation to figure out what’s going wrong. It might be overall staffing. It might be poor shift scheduling with the people available.
Zucchet, likewise, wonders what the right staffing level is in the first place. It’s an excellent question that has been on the back burner, he said, because the city can’t fill existing positions anyway, so it wouldn’t matter if the mayor budgeted for any additional ones.
“I think it’s fair to say that if we filled the budgeted positions, we could eliminate mandatory overtime and get back to a sense of equilibrium,” he said.
Wahl said the department’s first priority is to get to the 131 budgeted positions it has. After that, it would like to reach 2008’s staffing level, when there were 141 emergency dispatchers.
But in 1989, the city employed significantly more 911 operators – 171 total.
It’s hard to interpret the long-term reduction in 911 staffing, Wahl said. On one hand, that was before cell phones, and the department now receives many more emergency calls because people have phones on them all the time. If there’s an accident on the freeway, a half dozen people might call it in. In the past, someone would have needed to drive to the next exit and call from the gas station.
At the same time, the city’s emergency dispatch system has likewise improved with technological advances. Fewer dispatchers are needed.
“What’s important to understand for the public is, this has the full attention of the police chief and the mayor,” Wahl said.
Not everyone is so sure.
With June’s primary election approaching, Democratic mayoral candidate Ed Harris – also head of the city’s lifeguard union – and independent challenger Lori Saldaña have leapt on the issue.
Harris said Faulconer has let the issue fester for too long, and the changes he’s made are by definition not enough until they’ve ended the problem.
“It has to be a priority – and if it’s a priority, it doesn’t exist for three years,” he said. “They’re telling us they can’t handle a spike in emergency calls, when every other dispatch station in the country is able to handle that.”
Zimmerman, Harris said, is failing. Her response to the problem has been to emphasize the above-standard wait times, and to hide the exceptionally long waits.
“She’s going to such measures to protect (Faulconer) that she isn’t protecting the public,” he said. “She’s gotten to a place where she’s precariously close to losing all confidence from the public.”
Heading to the Beach
After the break-in, Kennedy asked her landlord to put bars on her window. He refused, and her daughter persuaded her it was time to move.
Her son said she should buy a shotgun. That way, she could cock the gun if someone was in the house and scare off the intruder. She didn’t do that, but she did move to a new apartment in Ocean Beach.
She came here two and a half years ago after spending her life until that point in El Centro.
She’s floored by what happened to her, but said she was happy to share the story, in hopes it would force action from the city.
“I’m a nurse,” she said. “My mission in life is to help people.”
Ry Rivard contributed to this report.