By the editorial board
The City of St. Louis response times for 911 calls are slowly improving, but are nowhere near where they need to be. In what we suspect to be the vast majority of cases, when citizens call 911 they are in some kind of crisis and very often face life and death consequences that require a quick but measured response from the person to the call. other end. of the line. The stakes are too high for the city to let these callers down by putting them on hold or failing to respond in the efficient and professional manner that callers deserve.
As the Post-Dispatch’s Erin Heffernan reports, the vacancy problem among police dispatchers is getting worse, not better. In July, the vacancy rate reached the astronomical figure of 30%. The current rate is 37%.
The response rate is improving slightly, although it is far from where it should be. The national standard is that 90% of 911 calls are answered within 10 seconds. In St. Louis, the past six-month average was just a 60% response rate, with a slight increase in February to 68.17% of calls answered within 10 seconds. About 4.4% of callers were put on hold for at least two minutes. Last summer, Kevin McDermott of the Post-Dispatch witnessed a fatal shooting on a downtown street and called 911 to report it, only to be put on hold multiple times. Some callers in those days had to wait up to eight minutes before speaking to a human.
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No one should envy the stress that 911 dispatchers themselves face. Their job is to work to keep the caller calm while getting key details of the caller’s crisis – location, type of emergency, contact name, current status and any threat or danger that may exist. The dispatcher should also maintain a calm and reassuring telephone demeanor, no matter how frantic the person on the other end may be.
All this for a starting salary of $38,000 for new employees, when existing employees might actually earn less. The most sought-after employees – those with between five and ten years of experience – may not be earning much more than $40,000 a year. This helps explain why the vacancy rate is increasing.
Mayor Tishaura Jones’ administration is trying to solve the twin problems of vacancies and poor response times by combining police, fire and emergency medical services dispatchers into a centralized system. There are union issues and vastly different pay scales to settle between police, firefighters and EMS dispatchers. A very expensive short-term solution is to pay police officers overtime to moonlight as dispatchers.
If the city has any hope of attracting and retaining the quality personnel it needs, something approaching the $50,000 starting salary for fire dispatchers must be the norm.