A recently released report from the City Auditor’s Office found a handful of dispatchers working an alarming number of overtime hours, while the dispatcher positions showed low employee retention rates.
The audit—covering October 2010 to June 2014—found about 50 percent of all fire dispatchers and 30 percent of police dispatchers working 22 percent of all work hours as overtime in 2014, equivalent to 18 full-time positions combined.
On average, about 16 fire dispatchers were staffed per year, with a budget for 19 positions, and about 50 police dispatchers were staffed per year with a budget for 60 positions.
The report did note that about eight sworn police officers and retired dispatchers working part-time were able to help dispatchers at various times during the audited years.
Handling about 2,250 calls per day—close to one million calls per year—for both police and fire employees, the report calculated that fire dispatchers were actually under-budgeted, needing closer to 25 full-time positions.
Despite understaffing, the report revealed the two emergency communications centers answered emergency calls well above industry standards.
In 2013, police dispatchers answered nearly 95 percent of all calls within 10 seconds and fire dispatchers answered 97 percent of emergency calls within 15 seconds.
Though the amount of overtime worked in 2014 cost the city about $1.3 million, officials from the Long Beach City Auditor's Office said the setup ultimately cost the city less than hiring full-time employees with benefits.
However, auditing officials said the audit’s main objective was to evaluate staffing procedures and highlight the need to prevent employee burnout and low morale.
“The core issue is… for these dispatchers to be alert, awake; that they bring their A-game to their work and that they are not tired and fatigued and burnt out,” City Auditor Laura Doud said.
The audit began as a result of an anonymous complaint about inappropriate overtime pay for some dispatchers working graveyard shifts.
During the review, 12 percent of police and 20 percent of fire records sampled were not eligible to receive nighttime pay. This amounted to about 7,371 hours—a total of $9,200 being incorrectly paid, Doud said.
Records also showed a disproportionate amount of overtime allocated to certain dispatchers based on seniority, followed by voluntary and mandatory sign-ups.
Police dispatchers usually work four 10-hour shifts per week and fire dispatchers work three 12-hour shifts per week with a fourth 6-hour shift on a certain day that allows for two hours of built-in overtime.
All dispatchers make between $21 and $36 per hour, maxing out at $76,000 a year, Doud said.
Following the complaint, the City Auditor’s Office also found low retention rate for dispatchers—with only 40 percent of hirees able to finish the mandatory one-year probationary period.
“I think it's a very difficult job that requires a lot of multi-tasking and the right fit for something so demanding,” Doud said.
One of the recommendations the auditor’s office made included expanding the candidate pool and speeding up the testing process— from the existing trajectory of about two months from the time supplies were requested to when test results were received—which department heads were already in the process of implementing.
The new program, the National Testing Network, allows for continuous testing to occur even if there is a time period of closed recruitment, said Reggie Harrison, director of the Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications Department, which was created in 2013.
“Candidates can still go and take this test, and at whatever period we open our recruitment, we can immediately get those results,” he said.
The NTN is also cost-effective, eliminating the city’s need to rent out centers and hire analysts and proctors for the tests.
According to Civil Service Executive Director Kandice Taylor-Sherwood, the costs also shift to the applicants, who pay $35 to take the test and $7 to send it to any agency throughout the country.
The city does offer financial vouchers for those who cannot afford the fee.
Apart from expediting the testing process, the NTN has allowed the city to reach more people, anywhere and anytime, Taylor-Sherwood said.
“It’s just making it really easy for us to get the word out because we’re publicizing, NTN is publicizing, so it's just doubling the effort,” Taylor-Sherwood added.
Department officials have also shifted from using police officers to conduct background investigations to hiring three outside firms to handle the checks, thus avoiding a backlog of application completions.
“We only pay them when we need their service, so it’s not an ongoing cost, but the availability is what's wonderful,” Harrison said.
DPEC officials also hope to begin cross-over training between police and fire dispatchers by the end of the year, when staffing has increased.
The department currently has 15 dispatchers in various stages of training, with a 35 percent decrease in overtime hours between January and April of this year compared to last year.
Though dispatchers are still budgeted under the police and fire departments, DPEC officials are working on transitioning them into their department.
The audit notes that if the recommended tactics for higher recruitment and retention are continued, the DPEC may be able to see full staffing of dispatchers within five years—more than half the time it would take if no changes were implemented.
Nationally, vacancy rates are high in call centers across the country, Harrison said, noting that what Long Beach has experienced is not out of the ordinary because it is a challenging job.
“The difference between Long Beach is that we are not satisfied with those national averages,” he said. “We think that we can do better and we put in place processes that will have us do better and that’s what we are looking forward to.”