Once again, wait times for emergency 911 calls are a problem for the City of San Diego, with the issue now shifting to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's (SDFD) call center.
It's been a little more than a year since Mayor Kevin Faulconer promised to fix a broken dispatch center in the San Diego Police Department. The police emergency call times have vastly improved and now meet national standards, but the problem now lies in the fire department where, according to a union representative for dispatchers, the call center is on the "brink of crisis."
Staffing levels in the Metro Zone Emergency Command and Data Center (ECDC) have dropped to a level where dispatchers are struggling to handle 911 call volume, according to numerous sources and a report commissioned by the city.
In recent months, callers to 911 were placed on "excessive wait times," and incoming emergency calls went unanswered for more than 59 seconds before a dispatcher was available to answer "on many observed occasions," according to the consultant Citygate Associates, LLC.
The national standard is a wait time of 10 seconds or less, 90 percent of the time.
According to the March 2017 reports, the firm was hired by the city and the SDFD to "proactively address pressing needs."
Citygate noted on-duty staffing at the center dropped to seven dispatchers to accommodate for illnesses, training, and vacations. The study found the SDFD staffing minimum of six to nine dispatchers was "insufficient by any reasonable calculation to handle incoming calls during peak hours."
The department has long struggled with retention and hiring of dispatchers, the study notes. A spokeswoman for SDFD said the department is in the process of hiring 14 more dispatchers.
During the past week, SDFD data shows the call center is answering all calls in less than 15 seconds more than 90 percent of the time. On Tuesday, calls were answered within 15 seconds, 99.3 percent of the time.
Michael Zucchet, the general manager of the union representing dispatchers, said the staffing situation in the emergency call center is dire.
"The call wait times have not manifested themselves quite as badly as it did with SDPD, but it is on the brink of crisis," Zucchet said. "If they lose another few more people at the wrong time, they will be in the same boat where they cannot handle the call volume."
The ECDC is the largest and busiest fire and EMS dispatch center in San Diego County, handling calls for Poway, Chula Vista, National City, Coronado and Imperial Beach. In 2015, ECDC processed almost 200,000 emergency incidents.
NBC 7 contacted the SDFD and the mayor's office Tuesday morning for their responses on this story. As of Wednesday, both the mayor and the SDFD fire chief declined on-camera interviews.
SDFD spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz sent the following information:
"We are looking to improve the operations of ECDC. We are currently in the process of hiring 14 dispatchers. These individuals will be assigned their interview dates very soon. We are also looking into the possibility of changing to a different shift schedule versus the current 12-hour shift schedule. This would be to better utilize the resources we currently have."
Muñoz added that the public could help SDFD tremendously by not calling 911 for non-emergencies.
"We recommend talking to your kids and family members about using 911 and also having a plan in case of an emergency," she said.