The frenzy hit San Francisco’s 911 dispatch center all at once.
On March 21, powerful winds of up to 80 mph began whipping across the city. The gusts toppled a big rig, sent high-rise windows careening through the air and smashed two barges into the Lefty O’Doul Bridge.
“It just went bananas,” said dispatcher Burt Wilson. Dozens of emergency calls flooded the 911 center in a matter of minutes.
Leadership boosted the number of emergency call takers from the scheduled 12 up to 19, but it wasn’t enough to keep up. The center has a bell that indicates 911 calls are waiting to be answered—and it rang for two hours straight, according to dispatcher Linda Roberts.
Dispatchers received 778 emergency calls between 3 p.m and 5 p.m., marking the two busiest hours the center has faced in at least five years, according to data from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. It was 400% of typical call volume.
“I’ve never seen it escalate like that,” said Ron Davis, a 22-year veteran dispatcher.
Hundreds of 911 callers were left waiting for an answer during the frenzy. The city aims to pick up 90% of emergency calls within 10 seconds, but during the peak of the storm, the overwhelmed dispatch center only answered 14% of calls that quickly.
The March 21 storm is the most prominent example of a consistent trend: The 911 center’s inability to answer emergency calls within 10 seconds during major call volume spikes, the data shows. The situation may surprise San Franciscans who think someone will answer right away when they dial 911.
But the center’s delays on March 21 are not a red flag to senior leadership. They say that delays are inevitable during call surges.
“Yes, we didn’t have enough call takers to answer 452 calls in an hour,” said Department of Emergency Management Deputy Director Robert Smuts, adding that the 911 center doesn’t even have enough call-answering stations to handle that type of sustained volume. “But that’s not something that you plan for or try to have,” Smuts said.
While a longtime staffing shortage has resulted in a chronic failure to meet the day-to-day call answering standard of 10 seconds 90% of the time, the city’s emergency response system is largely healthy, leadership told The Standard.
“I think that we provide, in spite of our challenges, a very good service,” Department of Emergency Management Executive Director Mary Ellen Carroll said. “These staffing issues are not unique to San Francisco. You will find them in any big city, and in many cities, it’s a lot worse than us.”
However, some dispatchers warn that the 911 call center situation is critical. Severe burnout, brought on by chronic understaffing and mandatory overtime shifts, is threatening their ability to continue rising to the occasion. Three dispatchers told The Standard they were concerned that the city’s dispatch center isn’t ready to handle a major emergency, like a damaging earthquake, due to widespread exhaustion.
“I would say there've been plenty of instances in the past where we’ve gotten by the skin of our teeth and pure luck, because of the low staffing levels,” said dispatcher Davis.
“It was basically hell on wheels,” dispatcher Binta Jannah said about March 21. “The city was not prepared, they’ve never been prepared and I’m not sure if they’re ever really going to be prepared.”
The call surge was so large that stormy afternoon that it was impossible to answer them all quickly.
Making matters worse, multiple dispatchers said they weren’t able to get ahold of other city departments or third-party partners during the surge. For example, as the wind toppled hundreds of trees across the city, taking power lines down with them, dispatchers needed to reach the Department of Public Works (DPW) and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to deploy teams to the sites.
“When we were calling DPW to go pick up a tree, it was going off the hook,” dispatcher Wilson said. “They weren’t even answering the phone.”
The public works department had five dispatchers working that day to receive calls from the 911 center and other city departments. But the power was knocked out, taking the phone lines with it, said a public works spokesperson. The outage limited the department's communication with the 911 center to one cell phone line.
Dispatcher Roberts said PG&E also wasn’t answering her calls. While the energy company was busy responding to other incidents, San Francisco firefighters were stuck waiting on the scene of downed wires for up to two hours since they can’t leave a hazard unmonitored, she said.
PG&E did not respond to a request for comment.
“If we arrive on a scene and there’s a major hazard like a power line down, then it’s our responsibility to keep that scene safe until PG&E responds,” said Fire Department Battalion Chief Matthew Cannon.
Without commenting on specific incidents, Cannon generally described PG&E as “pretty responsive to this storm,” recognizing that the company also has its own capacity limits.
In the lead-up to the storm, the fire department participated in multiple citywide planning meetings with the Department of Emergency Management and other departments preparing for the event and reviewing weather forecasts, Cannon said.
The Department of Emergency Management plans staffing levels around its busiest typical hours, not extraordinary events. So when major surges occur, the center bolsters its staffing by tapping managers and trainees to plug in, delaying scheduled breaks and asking dispatchers to stay on after their shift ends, Smuts explained. On March 21, that brought phone staffing up from a scheduled 12 people on the phones to 19, and the department added additional employees to coordinate with the Department of Public Works and PG&E.
When call volume skyrockets, the center also adjusts its response procedures so that dispatchers can clear calls more quickly, triage the most important calls and redirect some nonemergency requests to 311, officials said.
But these measures aren’t enough to stay on top of major call spikes. The Standard obtained Department of Emergency Management data documenting the top 20 busiest hours for emergency calls since 2018. The majority of emergency calls rang for more than 10 seconds during most of the 20 busiest hours in the last five years, the data shows.
“No system is prepared to be able to absorb that volume of calls in short order,” said Dr. James Dunford, a member of California’s Emergency Medical Services Commission. He said San Francisco is not an outlier.
Massive call volume spikes result in significant answering delays in all 911 centers, and it’s inherent to their design, said Dunford, who spent two decades as the San Diego Emergency Medical Services medical director.
“I don’t think there’s any center that has the ability to flex up to suddenly handle four times the volume that it would normally handle,” he said.
But San Francisco’s 911 center has struggled to meet its staffing needs even on typical days.
The number of dispatchers fell off a cliff during the pandemic, Smuts told the Board of Supervisors on March 1. There were 122 fully trained dispatchers at that time, far short of the goal of over 160 positions.
The department takes 10 months from application to hiring date, and another 10 months training dispatchers. Given that long timeline, and the fact that many trainees drop out, the city may not be back to full staffing until the end of 2025, Smuts said in his presentation.
That’s left many dispatchers working 60 to 80 hours each week, including regular mandatory overtime shifts, said Wilson, who leads the dispatchers’ union.
The 115 Department of Emergency Management dispatchers who worked at least 2,080 hours last year—a typical full year of work—logged an average of 509 overtime hours in 2022. Ten dispatchers worked more than 1,000 overtime hours during that time period, according to Controller’s Office data.
While mandatory overtime impacts dispatchers, most overtime is voluntary, the department’s spokesperson said. Mandatory overtime could result in an average 50 to 60 hour work week, but an 80-hour work week is rare and only happens voluntarily, she added.
Three dispatchers told The Standard they were concerned that the dispatch center isn’t ready to handle a major emergency, like a damaging earthquake or mass shooting event.
“We’re already overworked,” Davis said. “So when you get to a situation where you have a mass event, if your people are already exhausted, their ability to rise to the occasion is already reduced.”
San Francisco has developed plans and protocols to deal with expected surges in emergency calls in the future and is prepared to handle a large-scale incident, the Department of Emergency Services spokesperson said.
Staff shortages are not the dispatchers’ only concern.
The department currently uses a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system that is approaching its end of life. That system’s overhaul will be underway for the next two years. In the meantime, dispatchers say it’s glitchy and prone to crash. In rare cases, they’re left using a pen and paper to take notes during a call, and then have to physically run to the radio operator so the message can get sent out over the airwaves to first responders, Roberts said.
While it is in need of replacement, the current CAD system has been more than 99.98% operational, a Department of Emergency Management spokesperson said.
On top of that, an ongoing renovation of the main 911 center has relegated dispatchers to a cramped space in the interim.
Meanwhile, the dispatchers have a frontline view of the chronic ambulance delays and overcrowding at the city’s hospitals. Pretty much every day there are moments when there are no ambulances available to be dispatched in San Francisco, Davis said. And the police department is stretched so thin that calls coming in at 8 a.m. might not receive a visit by a responding officer until midnight, he added.
As a whole, dispatchers shared a bleak outlook on the overall performance of the 911 center.
“I think it’s a third-world kind of service you’re getting if you’re a San Francisco resident,” Wilson said.
Department of Emergency Management Executive Director Carroll has a very different assessment.
“I think that the state of emergency response is good,” Carroll told The Standard.
She acknowledged the “staffing crisis” in the 911 center and said the city is actively recruiting more dispatchers. But she emphasized that many other major cities have struggled with shortages in their 911 centers.
Carroll is quick to showcase the fortitude of the dispatchers in her department. They “did an incredible job on [March 21], and they did it with a great attitude,” she said.
On that point, the rank-and-file agrees with leadership.
The dispatchers did an exceptional job on March 21 “because we didn’t have a choice,” Jannah said.
“It’s our job to do it, and if we don’t, somebody could die."
Noah Baustin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org