San Francisco’s 911 system buckled under a barrage of calls Tuesday as a powerful storm battered the Bay Area. Chronic understaffing is set to continue for years, leaving dispatchers vulnerable to future emergencies.
While barges came unmoored and a big rig overturned on the Bay Bridge, the San Francisco emergency dispatch center saw a surge of calls more than four times its typical volume, prompting officials to call for the public to reserve 911 for life-threatening emergencies, according to a statement from the Mayor’s Office.
The stress of the storm exposed a long-brewing problem with San Francisco’s emergency response system: Long waits to reach dispatchers have become the norm.
The city’s 911 system has consistently failed to meet its own standards for picking up calls promptly in recent months, according to data from the Department of Emergency Management. The delays have been driven by chronic understaffing. It could be two years until the dispatch center is fully staffed again.
“All the different aspects of our emergency system in San Francisco are at the breaking point,” said Supervisor Ahsha Safaí on Wednesday. “So when we have these types of emergencies like last night—or the flooding that happened on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day—they stress the system, and the system is not prepared.”
The city’s standard is that 95% of all 911 calls should be answered within 15 seconds. That hasn’t happened in a single month since June 2020, according to data from the Controller’s office.
In December 2022, the most recent month for which data is available, nearly a quarter of people who called 911 in San Francisco were left ringing for more than 15 seconds.
Before the pandemic, the city had around 150 dispatchers, Deputy Director of the Department of Emergency Management Robert Smuts explained in a presentation to the Board of Supervisors earlier this month.
“And then we kind of fell off a cliff,” he said.
Nine dispatchers didn’t comply with the city’s vaccine requirements, which, combined with typical attrition, created a significant number of vacancies. A hiring freeze made it impossible to fill them. Once the hiring freeze was lifted, the department had the funding to bring on 36 new dispatchers. It has only hired 17 so far this fiscal year.
“And that was just a pure shortage of qualified applicants,” Smuts said.
In October, the department enlisted a recruiter, who has bolstered the number of applicants significantly. But the bureaucratic hiring process takes 10 months from application to hire date for the dispatcher role. Then, the new hires need another 10 months of training before they’re able to work on their own, Smuts said.
With all that in mind, it will likely take until the end of 2025 before the city fully staffs its emergency dispatch center, Smuts predicted.
In the meantime, breakdowns are happening across San Francisco’s entire emergency response system. Ambulances have been regularly delayed, overcrowded emergency rooms are keeping patients waiting for hours and police officers are working more and more overtime hours to cover shifts.
“This is a problem that’s been building over the last few years, and now it’s coming to a head,” Safaí said. “I think it has to be one of the top priorities in the city to get our emergency delivery system back on track.”