Oakland’s 911 center is a disaster in emergencies, grand jury finds

People wait up to two minutes for their call to get answered, report says
By Peter Hegarty, East Bay Times June 24, 2020

OAKLAND — In April 2019, an Oakland police officer was stabbed in the neck as he was coming off his shift and walking to his car two blocks from the police station.
Bleeding from the attack, he called 911 on his cellphone, but he couldn’t get through despite trying several times. So in desperation, he called another cop working in an Alameda County building a mile away.
That officer, instead of even trying to call 911, ran to his patrol car to radio the communications center for help. Meanwhile, a garbage truck driver who had heard the stabbed officer phoning for help also tried calling 911 but couldn’t reach a dispatcher. The driver called his supervisor, who in turn called 911 and got through.
By then other officers had arrived, and fearing the stabbed cop might not survive if they waited for an ambulance, put him in a patrol car and sped off to a hospital. The officer survived.
That chilling scenario was described in an Alameda County Civil Grand Jury report released this week that blasted Oakland’s 911 dispatch center for being understaffed, underfunded and dependent on outdated technology.
According to the report, callers to 911 in Oakland have had to wait for up to two minutes to get someone on the line, prompting many to just hang up in frustration.
The center falls far short of the state standard of answering 911 calls within 15 seconds, the grand jury found.
The report, released Monday, calls for the city to establish a policy for the Oakland Police Emergency Communications Center to answer 95% percent of 911 calls within 15 seconds and to hire more dispatchers.
“The communications center is the first point of contact for the public to access emergency services,” the report said. “The failure to answer 911 calls promptly is not acceptable. Steps to improve the center’s response time must be taken immediately.”
The center handles about 200,000 emergency calls each year. But in 2019, nearly 40% of Oakland’s 911 callers could not get through to operators within 15 seconds, and more than 18,000 callers had to wait more than two minutes for their call to get answered, the report said.
The long wait led to 13,800 people hanging up.
“The grand jury’s report shows the challenges Oakland faces with an underfunded and understaffed 911center,” said Felicia Aisthorpe, a spokeswoman for the police department. “We are committed to ensuring public safety for all of our residents, and we will deliver a full and thorough response to the issues raised by the report within the required 90 days.”
The grand jury recommended that the city establish a call-answering policy that meets state standards, recruit dispatchers continuously until all vacancies are filled, and publish each quarter on the city’s website information about how the center is performing.
The center’s dispatchers also are required to answer a 24-hour complaint line about police services, which stretches resources. In 2019, the center fielded 24,107 such calls, the report said.
Under state law, the city must respond to the grand jury within 90 days.
The Oakland police budget for fiscal year 2019-20 was $290 million, with about $15.7 million allocated for the communications center. That’s supposed to pay for 74 dispatchers, one communications manager and seven supervisors, according to the report.
But as of January this year, just 59 dispatchers were staffing the center.
“The grand jury learned that understaffing issues have persisted for years,” the report said. “As a result, the communications center required dispatchers to work up to 80 overtime hours a month. In 2018, the communications center’s overtime costs reached $2 million. The high dependency on overtime leads to burnout, fatigue and performance issues of dispatchers. The grand jury also heard testimony that these overtime mandates likely contribute to disproportionally high sick leave and disability claims.”
The grand jury’s report comes against a backdrop of demands that the Oakland City Council slash the police department’s budget by up to 50% following national civil unrest over how police interact with Black people.
“We have known for years that the 911 center has been underfunded,” said Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, adding that she still has not had a chance to read the grand jury report. “But I think everyone is going to be looking strongly in the future in terms of how we are funding those calls.”In 2017, the Oakland city auditor, who is responsible for ensuring that city government operates with transparency and is accountable to residents, found the center was failing to meet state standards and wasn’t adequately staffed to handle the number of calls, plus that the continual reliance on overtime exacerbated employee turnover.
Monday’s grand jury report found Oakland’s hiring process is slow, tedious and antiquated.