ST. LOUIS — A blue spinning light once flashed in the St. Louis police 911 dispatch center whenever someone calling with an emergency was waiting on the line.
When the light activated, Maureen Ramsey knew it might be someone cowering for safety or scared for a family member’s life. In her 44 years with the department’s communications division, she’s most proud that dispatchers are the first voice callers hear assuring them help is on the way.
But in recent years, Ramsey, 64, watched as the light flashed far too long in St. Louis.
Ramsey in February read a Post-Dispatch report that detailed how 30% of 911 calls in the city last year were put on hold. She knew the problems went deeper.
“I need to speak up about this because it’s even worse than you know,” said Ramsey, a dispatch manager leading a team of 23. “It’s become a danger to public safety and I don’t care what happens. I want to bring attention to it.”
Interviews with Ramsey and five other current and former employees in the communications division reveal that for years the department failed to act on dire memos calling for prioritizing hiring and retention to ease the workload on 911 dispatchers and improve 911 service. The Post-Dispatch reviewed salary data and found that an already depleted dispatch staff lost 19% of its workers over the last six years. The city today is short 24 dispatchers, about 30% of its authorized staffing. That’s higher than the department’s longstanding police officer shortage, which today stands at a deficit of about 11%.
The result is that people in St. Louis are often put on hold when they call 911, the city’s grade of service has fallen dramatically in recent years and staff members like Ramsey have grown frustrated with what they see as a lack of concern by top officials with the department and the city.
The department in February announced a series of fixes designed to improve 911 service, including allowing dispatchers to pause nonemergency calls to free up 911 lines at busy times and having 911 lines re-dial those who abandoned their call. Shortly after, the city also raised starting wages for dispatchers.
The city did not provide updated 911 caller data to show whether the changes have had an effect, but Ramsey said the department still hasn’t fully addressed its most urgent problem: keeping trained dispatchers from leaving. The department also has not hired any dispatchers this year, although a department spokesperson said 15 people are in some stage of the hiring process.
“You can get a new system and make these changes, but it’s not going to make any difference if you don’t have the people to answer the phones,” Ramsey said.
The situation was put into focus for her last summer when she said a family was placed on hold while attempting to report that their young child had been shot in the city.
“That is not right,” she said. “Something needs to change and I think keeping attention on it is the only way it will.”
The department did not make the commander of the communications division, Lt. Demetrius Elston, available for an interview, but did provide a statement.
“Staffing is the most important factor and more personnel are needed to improve the overall quality of the division,” it said.
The city’s 911 operation was originally designed to have 90 dispatchers, 12 supervisors and three managers, Ramsey said.
When the city took over the police department in 2013, staffing was immediately cut by six or seven positions, Ramsey said. Today it’s operating with about 60 dispatchers, 13 of whom are still in training, nine supervisors and two managers, according to staff rosters.
All the while, the workload and volume of 911 calls haven’t fallen.
“Right now we’re just constantly plugging holes trying to get it staffed 24/7,” Ramsey said.
Dispatchers have to fill at least two roles: receiving 911 and other police calls, and also managing the police radio channels and sending officers to calls.
Ramsey said about 10 years ago the division wouldn’t let people take time off if there weren’t at least 15 people working a shift. Shifts today are generally 10 to 13 people, she said.
Dispatchers now often need to manage two police district radio channels, when they were designed to work one.
“The channels get so crowded, it becomes an officer safety issue,” Ramsey said. “It’s harder for officers to reach a dispatcher when they need one.”
Ramsey said some people work double shifts of 16 hours to fill slots, although in the past the division wouldn’t allow anyone to work longer than 12 consecutive hours because of concern about fatigue.
Officers who are on desk duty while under investigation for misconduct often work out of the communications center alongside dispatchers, Ramsey said. They take calls that can be handled over the phone, but don’t ease the workload of dispatchers.
The division paid $162,000 in overtime in 2020, according to department salary records.
Former communications division commander Maj. Dan Howard said he’s shocked at how understaffed the department has let his former division become.
The division has long aimed to reach the widely accepted national standard of answering 911 calls within 10 seconds at least 90% of the time, Howard said.
The city’s rate last year fell to 64%.
“I’d get called into the chief’s office in the past when it would fall to 87%,” said Howard, who retired from the department last year. “For a metropolitan city, 64% is beyond failing. It’s unacceptable.”
St. Louis isn’t the only place with 911 problems. Little Rock, Arkansas, Dallas and Portland, Oregon, are just a few of the places where falling 911 response rates have drawn media scrutiny.
The National Emergency Number Association notes that dispatcher shortages have been a nationwide problem plaguing agencies as unemployment rates prior to the pandemic were low and the pay offered often is not commensurate with the work demands.
St. Louis loses dispatchers to neighboring agencies in St. Louis County and St. Charles County that pay more. St. Charles County last year answered 99% of 911 calls within 10 seconds. St. Louis County reported it hit 89% from January through March this year.
Howard said that although calls were more quickly answered when he was in charge of the division from about 2008 to 2013, he had seen signs of understaffing and sent multiple memos to commanders requesting higher pay, which then started around $12.40 an hour.
“I remember distinctly one man who had just been hired took one look at his paycheck after his first two weeks, got up and left,” Howard recalled. “He never came back. Decided it wasn’t worth it.”
Howard also supported discussions at the time to combine police dispatch operations with city fire and EMS dispatch.
The centers to this day remain separate. All 911 calls first come to the police dispatch center, which then can forward them to fire and EMS dispatchers, but often the police dispatcher is required to stay on the line even after the transfer.
“To tell you the truth I never got an answer to my memos,” Howard said. “I found in my 34 years of policing that money can be found for things that are a priority, and that didn’t happen here.”
CALLS FOR HELP
Police Chief John Hayden in November 2018 wrote the city’s personnel director after receiving reports that the division was deeply understaffed. Starting pay for a dispatcher even then was about $12.40 an hour.
“Our Communications Division is currently operating at a less than ideal capacity, and the shortage in personnel makes it difficult to maintain public safety standards that are critical to our accreditation,” Hayden wrote.
Bryan Boeckelmann, manager of Personnel Services and Examinations for the city, said Friday that Hayden received a response at the time saying wages were increased shortly after the city took over police operations in 2013. As a result, further wage hikes were not pursued following Hayden’s written plea.
In 2019, the division’s two managers, including Ramsey, and eight dispatch supervisors penned a letter to Hayden warning that the staffing shortage had grown and could have “catastrophic consequences” for officers and residents of St. Louis.
“We are bringing this to your attention in hopes that something can be done before people start losing their lives due to an overworked and understaffed 911 center,” they wrote.
The letter said employees were getting burned out and “working extreme amounts of overtime in order to help keep the division from collapsing.”
They argued the staffing was affecting service and cited a four-day period in summer 2019 when the afternoon shift reported only about half of the calls were answered within 10 seconds and 21% of people abandoned their call and hung up.
“At this time, we do not have the manpower to provide even adequate service to the citizens and the officers in this city,” the letter said, adding, “Not being able to help them goes against everything we are here to do as call takers and human beings.”
Ramsey said she never heard an official response to their concerns.
“It’s like we sent it off to Neverland,” she said.
Dispatchers did get a substantial pay raise in February 2020 when Mayor Lyda Krewson raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all city employees.
The new wage brought the starting salary up from $25,870 to $31,200. Then on Feb. 14, after the Post-Dispatch and other media published accounts of long 911 wait times, the department approved another pay bump bringing the starting salary up to about $38,000.
The average pay nationally for fire, EMS and police dispatchers is $41,910, or $20.15 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Ramsey says the pay bumps for new employees were sorely needed and show progress, but they also created tension. While entry-level pay jumped by thousands of dollars over the course of a year, many dispatchers with five to 10 years on the job still make about $40,000, not much more than those going through the 11-month training period.
When fully trained dispatchers leave for opportunities elsewhere, it can take months to replace them because the interview process requires a psychological evaluation, drug test and criminal background check, Ramsey said.
“You can go to Target and make just about the same, get hired right away and you don’t have to save a life. You don’t have to work as many weekends and holidays,” she said. “Most of us don’t do it for the money alone, but you need to take care of your family.”
Krewson has included upgrades to the 911 center and pay raises for dispatchers and police on a list of funding priorities for the city in light of a $517 million windfall in federal pandemic aid coming to St. Louis. Krewson is retiring, however, so it will be up to the next mayor to decide how to allocate the money. Voters on Tuesday will decide whether city Treasurer Tishaura Jones or Alderman Cara Spencer will replace Krewson.
NEW PROGRAMS, OLD TECH
Despite the short staff, Ramsey said her staff’s work has expanded substantially this year because of new city programs.
In January, Krewson’s administration launched an effort to divert 911 calls for mental health emergencies away from police, as long as no one was in danger.
Dispatchers are tasked with asking a list of questions, then deciding whether the matter should be diverted to the mental health contractor involved in the program, Behavioral Health Response.
“Those calls are even more time consuming and there really wasn’t proper training on it,” Ramsey said. “You’re asking already overworked people to make the decision on whether someone is dangerous with no training on that.”
On top of that, dispatchers have also recently been tasked with responding to alarms that can go off when an officer’s body camera indicates that officer may have fallen.
Ramsey said problems are further compounded by aging computers and technology that often crash.
“We’re still on Windows 7, which Microsoft doesn’t even support anymore,” she said. “All these new expectations are being added, but we can’t even get computers that work.”
A police department spokesman said in an email that while some computers in the city dispatch center do run on Windows 7, a new 911 management software was introduced in February that will be run on Windows 10.
Ramsey says she aims to make it difficult for the department to ignore 911 deficiencies any longer.
But her time with the department is nearing an end. The division will lose its longest tenured employee when she retires in July.
She was 20 when she took the job in 1977, before there was even 911 and only a few typewriters were in use in the department.
She’s changed with the times and moved into management, but says it’s been only recently that she’s lost faith in the division’s ability to serve the community.
“We’re the lifeline for the department for the officers, but they forget that,” she said. “They haven’t treated us equal and now the people in St. Louis aren’t getting what they’re expecting when they call 911. They call 911 and wait still.”
Ramsey was born and raised in the city, but says she plans to retire elsewhere because she’s worried about city services.
“I always loved what I did and I loved St. Louis. I still love it,” she said. “I am only retiring in July because I felt I have to speak up. We’ve fought all this time for these people and we went up the chain of command, but nothing happened. So now that I’m leaving, I can at least be a voice.”
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