‘We are one mistake away from tragedy’ City Council President proposes $1M 911 system changes

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(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) – New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams held a press conference at City Hall Wednesday. His main message: The communication department is understaffed, overworked and underpaid, and that needs to change.

He told the media, “We are one mistake away from tragedy and disaster”. He says citizens have been complaining about long wait times, disconnections, and, in one case, 9-1-1 was called and no one picked up.

He said under the current system, an operator has to transfer a call if there is a fire or medical emergency. The mayor has created a plan that should start after Mardi Gras, that would unify operators, so they can handle all emergency types. But Council President Williams says more action is needed and it needs to be taken now.

He wants to reallocate a million dollars to the communication department in the 2016 budget for better training, increasing staffing numbers (he wants to increase the number of call takers from roughly 55 to 65-70, dispatchers from 25 to 32 and supervisors from 5 to 12) and increasing pay from under $30,000 a year to $34,000. Williams also said this would be one of the largest reallocation budget proposals seen in the last five years.

Council President William’s full statement is available here:

The communication department within the NOPD is understaffed, overworked, and underpaid.

When our citizens call 911 they deserve a prompt response, from a well-trained professional. Currently, we are working our operators too hard, we are not supporting them, and we are not hiring enough to keep our citizens safe.

We are one mistake away from disaster and tragedy. And it is unacceptable.

The NOPD employs call-takers to answer 911 calls, and right now there aren’t enough of them. Up until now, the City has failed to act. We must devote more resources to this area so that we can attract and retain qualified call-takers.

I am committed to using this year’s budget process to highlight this issue, and fix it.

Currently when a citizen calls 911 an NOPD call-taker answers the phone. If the emergency involves a fire or EMS, the call is transferred to an operator in the fire department or EMS depending on the nature of the emergency. The Mayor has created a plan to unify all of these operators and cross-train them so that any operator can handle all types of emergencies. This unification plan has been in the works for months, and should be started just after Mardi Gras.

I support this plan, but pursuing this plan should not prevent us from acting now to staff-up the NOPD communications department, and train our operators. We have an emergency on our hands, and we need begin acting accordingly. We cannot wait. While we wait to act, we force our citizens to wait when faced with the worst moments of their lives.

A few weeks ago I held a community forum on sexual violence. In light of the increase in sexual assaults I brought together the NOPD and service providers from the Family Justice Center to talk with the community about the City’s response to sexual assaults. What I heard from community members were harrowing stories about problems with 911, including:

  • long wait times,

  • disconnections, and

  • in one case, no operators being available to pick up the phone.

I have heard these stories periodically since taking office. And while hard to confirm, I am now fully convinced that the reason for delays, the reason why no one is picking up when that call comes in, is because we simply do not have enough operators. We have not hired enough call-takers, and we have allowed qualified call-takers to walk away from the job because of the stress and low pay.

As I consider the 2016 budget, I want this budget to reflect the priorities of the citizens. And I know there is nothing more important than their safety and security.

I am proposing that we re-allocate over a million dollars to attract, train, and retain employees as 911 call-takers, dispatchers, and supervisors.

We cannot pay these workers what they deserve, but we must raise the starting salary to $34,000 as a way to attract new call-takers. $34,000 is not an extravagant salary. And when you consider what this job entails, $34,000 barely seems adequate.

As I have said before, these operators are who we turn to in our worst moments. Each of us may call 911 only a few times in our lifetime, and each time we call it is one of the worst moments of our lives. For these 911 operators and dispatchers all they hear all day long are the worst moment of our lives. Currently, these folks are making under $30,000 to handle our worst moments.

We only have to look at the NOPD officers to see what happens when fail to properly staff a department. By not hiring enough officers we are forced to play catch-up, we cannot let that happen for our call-takers as well.

I will continue to work with the administration and other councilmembers on this effort. I believe this will be one the largest reallocations of spending we have seen over the last five years between the Mayor’s proposed budget and the adopted budget. It reflects a spirit of cooperation between the Mayor and this Council to do good work for our citizens and protect our community.

City council members have been busy. Tuesday, Sheriff Marlin Gusman asked for additional funds, or he said he would not be able to make payroll this week.
At that special meeting, the council decided to give him another million dollars. He’s now received $3.8 million to help him get through the rest of the year.

There’s likely more budget discussions to come. The council is supposed to have all amendments and suggestions approved by Thursday. They’re expected to approve the final budget on December 1.