911 call center staffing shortage in Austin reflects nationwide trend
AUSTIN, Texas - A street takeover event that occurred earlier this month at multiple locations across Austin highlighted the ongoing staffing shortage plaguing Austin's 911 call center.
"I want to address the reported delays in 911 calls being answered Saturday night," said APD Chief Joseph Chacon in a press conference following the Feb. 18 event.
Some callers were left on hold as they watched cars doing donuts in the middle of intersections, fireworks going off and people even catching fire. One of those callers happened to be Austin City Council member Alison Alter, who has been a longtime proponent of fixing the 911 system.
"We called 911 and waited and waited…waited 28 minutes before they responded," said Alter in an interview with FOX 7 Austin after the weekend’s events. "I really think we have an opportunity now with the new city manager to think outside the box and put in place the solutions that should have been put in place a long time ago."
At a press conference the following week, Chief Chacon said a higher-than-normal volume of calls combined with a lower-than-normal staff contributed to Saturday night’s delays.
During a special called public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28, Chief Chacon discussed how the department is preparing in the event a similar scenario occurs in the future.
"We have been looking at the issue of increased call load coming in and how we can have some automating that would assist with that and be able to potentially divert people away if they’re calling about the same thing that 50 other people are calling about," said Chief Chacon.
According to APD, on Saturday, Feb. 11, from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., 65 calls were fielded by 16 staff members at the emergency call center. During the same time window, on Saturday, Feb. 18, 266 calls were fielded by 12 staff members.
However, the following Monday, Feb. 20, a Houston couple visiting Austin had a similar waiting experience as many of the weekend callers.
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"[Marcus] didn't believe I called 911," said Michelle Arcos, co-owner with Marcus Villalobos of Villalobos Tree Service. "He was like, ‘You cannot be put on hold with 911,’ so he ended up calling too."
The two had traveled to Austin for post-ice storm tree removal. The trip ended up costing them thousands of dollars worth of stolen tools that were taken in broad daylight from their North Austin hotel, including seven chainsaws, two leaf blowers, and a tree climbing harness.
Their frustration was two-fold when they tried to report the incident to 911.
"I was on hold for 15 minutes, and he was on hold for like 15 to 20 minutes," said Arcos. "You don't get put on hold for 15 minutes for 911 in Houston, they answer right away, like within 20 seconds."
According to numbers provided by APD, as of Feb. 23, there were 68 vacancies at the 911 call center. Below is a breakdown of the vacancies:
- Authorized Staffing: 104
- Vacancies: 46
- Authorized Staffing: 75
- Vacancies: 17
- Authorized Staffing: 13
- Vacancies: 3
- Authorized Staffing: 12
- Vacancies: 2
The City has been working to fill these shoes by initiating pay raises last year along with an additional stipend.
Training has been modified so it can "occur more quickly" and "job offers can be made earlier," according to a January 2023 memo.
The City also launched the "largest hiring campaign" in Austin’s history this month to promote hard-to-fill positions, including 911 call center staff.
"We've made strides and are getting more applicants than at any time in recent history, but it takes time to hire them and to train them," said Chief Chacon during the street takeover press conference. "What makes it incredibly tough is that 911 call takers are mandated by state law to be TCOLE-licensed, as well as to be able to pass all of the background checks that are needed to be able to access criminal justice information."
Austin serves as a snapshot of a national problem
This year, the National Emergency Number Association released four PSAs for 911 call centers to use to attract talent. Anecdotally, the association reports seeing a 30% shortage on average at 911 centers across the nation.
Austin is slightly above that 30% mark as of now.
"We believe we are being as creative as we can to get as many folks, including not only holding people over from previous shifts, hiring very heavily on overtime, but I even have sworn staff that is in the 911 call center taking 911 calls right now instead of being out on the street," said Chief Chacon.
At the public safety committee meeting on Feb. 28, Austin City Council member Mackenzie Kelly asked about bringing in members of other emergency departments, like the Austin Fire Department, to help answer 911 calls. Chief Chacon said that idea had previously been considered and dismissed, due to the extra training that would be needed, along with low staffing in other first responder departments as well.
Austin City Council member José "Chito" Vela asked if the 911 call center was losing some staff to software companies that offer better pay and the opportunity to work remotely. Chief Chacon said, anecdotally, that has been happening.
"Not only are we losing our call takers but many of our crime analysts are being hired by private companies," said Chief Chacon.
Chief Chacon said he currently has 100 call-taker applicants in the pipeline and 75 dispatcher applicants. There are a combined 17 dispatchers and call takers currently being trained to fill those positions.
In May 2022, one North Texas city got attention for giving its emergency communications specialists, or 911 dispatchers, a 21.5% pay increase.
According to the Grapevine Police Department, the higher pay "is part of a new hiring strategy to combat severe staffing shortages and recruit the most qualified candidates." The increase puts starting salaries at $52,208-$73,091.