A Phoenix 911 operator who recently recovered from COVID-19 has died after returning to work. And now the city is investigating how it handled overtime in her case. Pamela Cooper’s story is part of a larger issue about who is answering 911 operators’ calls for help.
Four days after Pamela Cooper was rushed to the hospital, Councilwoman Betty Guardado said this: “Pamela’s shift should have been 10 hours but because of the chronic understaffing she was forced to stay for 15 hours.”
The day after working 15 hours, Cooper collapsed at home.
“We need an independent investigation into our 911 call centers and accountability for the mistakes made by the city and those who have made them,” Guardado said.
“I’ve struggled to get the police dispatch center clean from COVID cases,” said Frank Piccioli, president of AFSCME Local 2960, the union representing police operators and fire dispatchers. “I have dispatchers in police working 15, 20, 25 hours a week mandated overtime.”
Phoenix has 51 openings for police communications operators, a vacancy rate of more than 20%. The fire department has 11 open dispatch positions (a vacancy rate of 11%) but six hires are expected to begin March 8.
When comparing salaries across the Valley, Phoenix found its minimum range ($44,158) and maximum range ($64,917) are below the average for Valley cities while its actual average salary ($55,356) is slightly above the Valley average of $54,766. Tempe, Mesa and Surprise have higher actual average salaries with Tempe the highest at $10,000 more than Phoenix.
In January, Phoenix’s Chief Human Resources Director Lori Bays told the city’s public safety subcommittee that workload also matters.
“If you can work for Phoenix for example and have to manage up to 200 calls per day or you can work for another city and have, you know, an average of 20 calls per day and make approximately the same amount of money, some of our dispatchers have chosen to do that,” she said.
Piccioli said calls are put on hold daily, usually one or two, but sometimes workers text photos showing several more.
“I’ve heard calls being on hold for as few as two minutes to as large as five minutes. And five minutes being on hold on a 911 call, well, I mean, you can imagine depending on the situation,” he said.
The national standard set by the National Emergency Number Association, which Phoenix follows, is to answer 90% of 911 calls within 15 seconds. Phoenix says it answers 82% within 15 seconds.