Shelly Zimmerman Public Safety Committee Meeting
San Diego Police Chief Shelly Zimmerman at a City Council committee meeting. Photo courtesy of CityTV

The City Council Tuesday approved a 15 percent raise for dispatchers in an effort to beef up staffing in the San Diego Police Department‘s overworked Communications Department, which has been plagued by slow responses to 911 calls.

The pay hikes will come in three 5 percent increments — the first being Friday with the start of the new fiscal year.

While city officials have been aware of problems in the SDPD’s dispatch center, the response issue entered the public spotlight in April when a couple gave up calling 911 after several tries and drove their newborn to the hospital after he was bitten by a dog. The baby later died.

Last fall, two callers who had intruders in their homes in separate incidents each spent several minutes on hold.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald said the staffing problem stemmed from recession-era “draconian cuts” the city had to make, including a 6 percent across-the-board reduction in pay.

She said city officials have been trying to dig themselves out of that hole in recent years, and that few employees are more important than 911 dispatchers.

“You are the first line of defense for people who are having their absolute worst day,” Emerald said.

“Every sort of emergency there is — and you’re professional, you get information, you get it to the right agency to help get first responders out there, and you save lives,” Emerald said. “You make a difference and we owe you a great debt of gratitude.”

The raises are on top of a pair of 3.3 percent pay increases granted in upcoming fiscal years to members of the Municipal Employees Association, which represents police dispatchers. As part of that separate deal, dispatchers were one of several job categories for which an additional 5 percent bonus was specified to address recruiting and retention issues.

“This problem wasn’t created overnight, but we are committed to taking the steps to fix it,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said.

“We’re tackling this issue head-on with operational changes and now we’re making San Diego’s dispatcher compensation more competitive so we can hire and retain the best and brightest men and women for what is an intense and critical job,” Faulconer said.

“We’re already seeing the results as emergency wait times have improved and we will continue to make changes as needed to ensure that San Diego remains one of the nation’s safest big cities,” he said.

According to the mayor’s office, a survey showed San Diego police dispatchers were among the lowest-paid in the area before the raises were approved.

Along with the raises, the SDPD has altered employee schedules in the center to make more dispatchers available to handle the 1.3 million calls received annually and changed management, city officials said.

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said 911 calls were answered, on average, in 8 seconds last week. According to the mayor’s office, wait times lasted an average of 15 seconds two months ago.

The deal passed 7-1, with Councilman Scott Sherman dissenting and Councilman David Alvarez absent.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.