Orange County’s biggest emergency dispatch center is struggling to staff itself, raising questions over whether there are enough 911 dispatchers.
Call center operators are ringing alarm bells saying they’re already brutally overworked – they also warn that the impacts of so much forced overtime is triggering troubling questions about their own ability to handle the county’s next big emergency.
This year, Orange County Fire Authority dispatchers are working more forced overtime than they have in nearly a decade while fielding 911 calls from the nearly 2 million county residents they serve, answering over 400 emergency calls every day.
Until the end of last month, nearly 30% of the department’s dispatcher jobs were vacant, with dispatchers claiming the situation is grim, saying the long hours have negatively impacted their personal lives and professional performance.
“If a (massive) fire were to break out, we could not sustain operations,” said one dispatcher, who asked to be kept anonymous for fears of reprisal. “We just wouldn’t have enough dispatchers to perform our duties.”
A former dispatcher said the dispatch center isn’t ready for a major disaster and it’s only a matter of time until someone dies.
“In the dispatch world, sending to a wrong address is like a cardinal sin,” they said. “If you send a fire engine to the wrong address and you don’t find out until they make it there, that’s a six or seven minute delay at best.”
“That six or seven minutes could kill somebody.”
In a statement to Voice of OC, the OC Fire Authority staff denied any concerns about staffing the center, but said they recognized the extra hours had been hard on their employees.
“The agency recognizes the impact of recent forced staffing on its dispatchers and their families,” OCFA staff wrote. “Our dispatchers are a resilient group of professionals and the unsung heroes of the high level of service we provide our communities.”
OCFA staff did not respond to Voice of OC’s request last Thursday for information on whether dispatchers have sent first responders to the wrong address this year.
A Voice of OC review of the dispatchers’ reported work hours provided by the authority found the average dispatcher has worked nearly 54 hours a week every week this year just to keep the dispatch center up and running.
Seven dispatchers have averaged 60-hour work weeks the entire year.
One dispatcher has consistently logged in 75-hour work weeks for just about the entire year.
A second dispatcher, who also asked not to be identified, said the situation took a toll on everybody’s health and relationships, and said they were “absolutely not,” ready for a major disaster.
“It had a pretty significant impact,” they said. “We can barely sustain what we’re doing right now, and that’s just answering 911 calls and handling day-to-day structure fires.”
When asked about the problem, OCFA’s leadership pointed out how they’d just brought on 13 new dispatchers fresh out of the academy – the largest graduating class in the agency’s history.
“OCFA has numerous other mechanisms to address the need for additional staffing during major emergencies,” officials wrote in a statement, noting they could call in off duty dispatchers to work and stop people from leaving at the end of their shift if necessary. “During recent major wildfires, OCFA has aggressively exercised some or all of these mechanisms.”
Are The Trainees Ready to Take 911 Calls?
While the new class of dispatchers has graduated from the academy, it will take at least another year before they’re fully trained and able to work alone, according to a letter from Charles Barfield, the head of the Orange County Employee Association – the union who represents the dispatchers and numerous other county employees.
“OCFA has been short-staffed for well over a year; due to this, employees are being mandated to work overtime shifts and are often on 16-hour shifts for several days at a time,” Barfield wrote to authority board members. “Recently a Supervisor worked 27 hours straight with no sleep break.”
Barfield also pointed out that a crew of exhausted dispatchers are guaranteed to make a mistake sooner rather than later.
“Despite how excellent our employees are at the services they provide; fatigue can lead to mistakes that can harm the public and our first responders,” Barfield wrote. “It is only a matter of time before this occurs, at no fault of our members.”
The larger class also came as the department made it easier to join the academy, removing one of the two tests applicants have to take because it was “no longer the industry standard,” and interviewing applicants just one time before they could join instead of two.
“The new process is more efficient and resulted in a higher success rate of high-quality candidates,” staff wrote.
With their new hires, the dispatch center now has 38 dispatchers, exceeding the department’s cap of 32.
But in the last year, nine dispatchers have left the call center and the agency noted in their statement that the overhiring was due to the expectation that trainees would drop out or that seasoned staff would depart.
A former dispatcher who spoke to Voice of OC said they left because they were getting forced into 16-hour shifts and regularly working six days a week, and that the current managers of the dispatch center were running it into the ground.
“You hear OCFA and you think of the golden ship. It’s the golden sinking ship,” they said. “I never ever thought that I would leave the OCFA … but it was unbearable.”
OCFA Leadership Were Long Warned About Staff Shortage
OCFA’s executive leadership and board of directors were warned about short staffing in their dispatch center three years ago, but they opted not to do anything after an auditor identified the shortage of dispatchers as one of the biggest threats to the department in August 2020.
“The OCFA is like almost every 911 center in the country in that it is challenged to recruit, train and retain 911 dispatchers,” auditors from the Mission Critical Partners firm wrote in their report. “It can become very difficult, if not destructive, to personnel and customer service to operate with too few dispatchers.”
“These conditions often result in excessive amounts of overtime.”
Auditors’ top recommendation was to increase the staff’s size from 32 to 42 dispatchers, and Fire Chief Brian Fennessy acknowledged that staffing was an issue in his presentation to the board of directors in September 2020.
“It’s not healthy to force people to work as often as we were,” he said in 2020, but claimed they’d hired more staff and that it wouldn’t be an issue going forward.
Each year, the authority’s staff noted in their annual report that they’d made no progress on expanding the department’s size.
This past April, the authority reported the dispatch center was more understaffed than it has been in nearly a decade, in a report which stated the average dispatcher was working at least nine overtime shifts beyond their regularly assigned 15 to 16 shifts each month, which are 12 hours long.
Two thirds of those overtime shifts were under the department’s “forced hiring,” rules, meaning dispatchers couldn’t decline or change the shift and were required to show up at work.
“The workload and demands on the OCFA Emergency Command Center have continued to increase over time, resulting from an increase in incident volume, incident complexity and the loss of trained personnel,” staff wrote in their April report. “The (command center) is currently experiencing a 9-year record high forced hiring situation.”
When asked why that problem had never been addressed in an email, staff stated they held off on presenting the option to OCFA’s board of directors because of how much it would cost.
“The significant organizational impact of adding these additional positions, combined with the uncertainty created by COVID-19 in 2020/2021, was certainly causal to any delay in presenting additional staffing recommendations,” staff wrote.
Yet despite those budget concerns, the fire authority managed to purchase two new Sikorsky helicopters in Oct. 2022 for nearly $58 million.
That month, there were 124 forced overtime shifts that needed to be filled.
What’s Being Done Now?
Aside from the hiring of new staff, fire authority board members say they’re struggling to find other ways to help the forced overtime problem.
“I don’t know what else we can do other than to hire more people,” said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, who also sits on OCFA’s board of directors. “I’m open to all suggestions to improve the quality of the workplace.”
Foley and Buena Park Councilman Connor Traut, who also sits on the board, highlighted a recent pay increase for dispatchers in a new union contract that was approved by the board over a year after the previous one lapsed.
“In addition to bringing in new people, we need to make sure we retain the people we have,” Traut told Voice of OC. “I’m optimistic the recent contract we approved with OCEA and the additional hirings are going to significantly improve the forced hiring issue.”
But there are some concerns from dispatchers that the big group of new trainees could add more stress to their jobs, given that they’ll need to be overseen by other trainers for several months before they can work independently.
When asked about the issue, Foley said there wasn’t another option.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Foley said. “Maybe that’s true for an interim period of time, but if you don’t bring on a high volume of staff, we’re never going to get enough people to be trained.”
Multiple current and former dispatchers told Voice of OC the center doesn’t have enough trainers to teach the new dispatchers one-on-one.
“It’s gotten even worse since I left,” a former dispatcher said. “They’re nowhere near ready. They don’t have enough trainers.”
In his letter to board members, Barfield asked for an additional pay raise for dispatchers, pointing out the amount of work they were doing, and suggested implementing a referral bonus for OCFA employees who could recruit dispatchers that made it past probation.
“We need to reward the long term employees of OCFA and incentivize our employees to stay longer or to not leave for other agencies,” Barfield wrote. “We need everyone at OCFA to be looking for quality dispatchers to join the force.”
One of the dispatchers who spoke to Voice of OC said that without a major change in the near future, things aren’t going to get better for the department.
“We’re doing what we can – we volunteer to pick up extra overtime, but then they just bury us with mandatory overtime,” they said. “There’s issues for public safety.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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