With Austin’s 911 call center in ‘crisis,’ city and police leaders seek to boost staffing

BEN THOMPSON Published October 25, 2022

Community Impact – Austin residents can expect to wait an average of 2 and a half minutes for their 911 calls to be answered with the city’s 911 call center currently short around 70 staffers—a “crisis” situation that city and police leaders are hoping to address with an ongoing hiring and retention push.

During an Oct. 25 briefing to Austin City Council, Police Chief Joseph Chacon called the dwindling staff at the Austin Police Department’s 911 call center a “concerning” situation that he and other city department heads have prioritized given the lag many Austinites are now experiencing when calling 911. The national standard for answering 90% of 911 calls is within 15 seconds, well below Austin’s 150-second average. Chacon said APD hits that 15-second mark less than 66% of the time, leaving thousands more 911 callers on hold for much longer.

Staffing and call-taking trends led APD to pursue what Chacon labeled as “unconventional measures” to man the city’s emergency phone lines and prompted several council members to call for the briefing as APD continues to focus on recruitment.

“With the vacancies at the rate that the chief told us about, and the answer rate far below the standard for 911 calls, and an average hold time for callers to be at 150 seconds, we’re in a crisis,” District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said.

Staffing up

While noting that understaffing is an issue in all Austin departments—and across the country—Chacon said the city and APD are focused on what they can do differently at a local level to attract and retain call-takers. Among the issues he pointed to in Austin’s communications center are compensation, burnout, turnover, a heightened workload with mandatory overtime, and the overall stress of a job fielding emergency calls.

To address those challenges, APD is focusing both on attracting new recruits and keeping its more tenured staff in place.

Changes already implemented include 26% and 35% increases to entry-level pay for call takers and police dispatchers, respectively. Licensed employees also receive a $150 monthly stipend, while all staff members who worked for the city as of mid-May are in line for a $3,000 retention bonus.

Police and human resources staff are exploring the possibility of additional sign-on bonuses, and they plan to address pay compression to better compensate long-serving employees as well as new hires this year.

Human Resources Director Joya Hayes also committed to more transparency and communication between staff and Council as further changes are made amid what she said has been an unprecedented handful of years for hiring and staffing nationwide.

“This is a crisis, but our city is doing better, and we are trying to do more,” Hayes said.