ST. LOUIS — Every second counts and St. Louisan Brenda Duke knows this first hand.
"I don't know how long I was on hold," Duke said in a September interview. "They came back like two or three times just to let me know that I was still on hold and to keep continue holding. By the time I got done holding, the neighbor's house was starting to burn and melt. Then I looked, her house was just full-on in flames!"
This past fall, she needed immediate assistance for her neighbor. The family was able to escape, but the home was a total loss.
Duke's concerns were more than just the burning home, the wait response was worrisome too.
A big reason this is happening? Staffing.
"They are 38% down from where they need to be in dispatching," said Jeff Roorda, the business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
A St. Louis Police Department spokesperson provided the following numbers:
- 1 Dispatch Manager (2 short)
- 9 Dispatch Supervisors (1 short)
- 53 Dispatchers (31 short)
This understaffed crew is trying to handle 1,200 to 1,800 calls per day.
A national standard is to answer 90% of the calls in 10 seconds.
As of February, 68.17% of St. Louis' 911 calls were answered in that time frame.
Here's a monthly breakdown for its grade service of answering calls within 10 seconds since September 2021:
- September – 51.19%
- October – 55.62%
- November – 62.71%
- December – 59.39%
- January – 66.01%
St. Louis city's goal was to merge all three dispatch centers, police, fire and EMS, by October 2021.
However, that plan is still in the works. All three are still separate as of March 2022.
The police union along with fire and EMS unions claim the current merger plan is being made behind closed doors.
Emily Perez is an attorney for the International Association of Firefighters Local 73, which represents many of St. Louis city's fire and EMS members.
She said they are not opposed to the concept, but they need to know what's going on.
Perez said she's worried significant details will be overlooked with gaping holes in the plan.
Roorda also said the police union wants to be a part of the conversation.
"They are going to force us and the firefighter's union to sue over this and it’ll tie up in court. It can be resolved in a day, if they meet with us," Roorda said. "It’s inexcusable to be in this dance for nine months, we don’t have any answers."
A spokesman for Mayor Tishaura Jones' office said "we have established the new dispatcher job classes and they were reviewed and approved by the Interim Director of Personnel after being reviewed by the Director of Public Safety."
Until then, a temporary plan is in place.
"The short-term solution was to train cadets, who can provide fill-in services, and train officers who can fill in overtime," Public Safety Director Dan Isom said.
According to police sources, this email went out Monday to the department, requesting volunteers to help with the 911 Call Center.
Isom said recruiting dispatchers has been difficult because of the starting salaries.
Starting salaries vary widely among the classifications:
- EMS dispatchers starting at $31,000 to $33,000
- Police dispatchers starting at $38,000 to $41,000
- Fire equipment dispatchers making $49,000 to $74,000
Roorda believes the money being spent on the training and overtime of the officers could have been used for the current dispatchers and future ones, too.
"To pay police officers, who aren't trained to do the job, time and a half to come in and work a dispatch - they're roughly making almost triple what these long-serving, well-trained dispatchers are making. Why not pay these dispatchers what they deserve?" Roorda said.
As the potential merger is in limbo, Isom wants to reassure residents.
"This is not taking officers off the street. These are officers who voluntarily elected to fill in overtime, so we can fill up our staffing as we try to recruit more dispatchers," he said.
Isom told 5 On Your Side they've already trained the cadets, so they are actively working hours right now.
They've also trained officers coming out of the academy and they are about to begin.
As for the current officers working overtime, they are in their final stages of training this month.