Oakland Police Communications Faces Record Staffing Shortage

OAKLAND – If you dial 911 in Oakland, you are more likely than ever to get a recorded voice that calmly repeats the message: “This is Oakland 911. Do not hang up.”

That’s because there are not enough operators working the phones to handle the high volume of emergency calls, says Oakland Police Communications Supervisor Regina Harris-Gilyard.

Although it is one of the busiest emergency centers in the state, handling 813,039 calls last year, Communications is currently running with only 57 of 72 dispatcher positions filled.

The division has had a staffing shortage for years, but this is the worst that Harris-Gilyard has ever seen: “We’ve never had 15 vacancies in the 23 years I’ve worked here.”

To make matters worse, five of the 57 dispatchers are on long-term disability primarily for off-duty reasons, leaving Communications with only 52 active employees.

Despite relatively good pay, Oakland police are suffering an overall staffing shortage. The department is now down 80 officers and losing an average of three a month to retirement. Many new applicants can’t pass the background checks.

For Communications, that means an average wait for callers of 16 seconds in August, compared to a statewide average of 10 seconds, said Lt. Michael Johnson, who leads Police Communications. Johnson is not aware of anyone who was harmed by the longer wait time, but he says, “It’s always better to be quicker than that.”

There are many empty gray cubicles in the police Complaint Center, where Gina Oliver, a veteran dispatcher of 10 years, sits at a desk in the middle of the room. The seats are filled entirely by women who divide their attention between a muted TV tuned to CNN and a small, electronic reader board that alerts dispatchers to the number and the wait time for each incoming call.

Oliver wears a headset patched into the phone and the computer system. She faces two flat-panel monitors displaying caller information and database forms, in which she enters each caller’s name, address and complaint.

Oliver took the job when she was a newly divorced mother 10 years ago. Today dispatchers start at $32 an hour, and Oliver says the pay was what initially drew her to the work: “There’s nowhere you can go in the private sector and make this kind of money.”

The job isn’t for everyone, said Dee Lyons, Office of Personnel project manager for Oakland police.

“You’re multitasking, and people’s lives are on the line. You could be taking a call from an officer down or a citizen whose life is in danger,” she said.

To get more dispatchers like Oliver, the Office of Personnel is expanding its recruiting and print and online advertising. In the past year, it held two workshops at the department auditorium. Potential applicants heard from current dispatchers who talked about the types of calls they handle and took questions about the background check required of all applicants.

It’s a difficult job. Dispatchers are the emergency workers that nobody sees. Oliver says she must schedule her three children’s birthday celebrations around work. Depending on which shift she draws at the beginning of each year, she might work nights, weekends and holidays. Now remarried, she says she stays with the job because “I relatively like it and I’m good at it.”

One upside to the shortage is overtime. Oliver works between 44 and 60 hours each week. “You can make as much money as you want here,” she says.