San Francisco has announced plans to mobilize its 911 dispatchers for the first time in over 15 years when world leaders flock to the city for November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. But the dispatchers’ union is opposing the demand, raising concerns over chronic burnout and questioning whether city officials may force workers to log the long hours the mobilization would require for a planned event as opposed to a bona fide disaster situation.
Department of Emergency Management Executive Director Mary Ellen Carroll announced the mobilization in an Oct. 4 email to staff.
“There is no way to adequately address public safety needs without mobilizing,” Carroll wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Standard.
The mobilization would run from Nov. 10 through Nov. 19, Carroll added.
“The SF 911 union officers were not in agreement with the department regarding emergency mobilization,” dispatcher and union leader Burt Wilson told The Standard in response to the announcement.
The dispatchers’ opposition stems from a long-running conflict between the union and the city. Dispatchers want to be classified as public safety workers, a designation that would come with improved benefits similar to those enjoyed by police officers and firefighters, including retirement as young as 50 years old and a pension that pays as much as 90% of their annual salary.
Firefighters and cops enjoy these premium benefits with the understanding that, while they’re on the force, they may be called in to an emergency at any time. The dispatchers argue that they’re being asked to make a similar sacrifice without the same reward.
The San Francisco Police Department already canceled all vacation time for sworn members during the summit, telling employees to expect 12-hour shifts.
“Our department wants to mobilize its clerical dispatchers as if they are public safety members,” Wilson said.
The Standard sent the Department of Emergency Management, which manages the 911 dispatch center, a detailed list of questions about the plans for the mobilization.
“This will be a very busy week for the entire city, especially for public safety operations,” a spokesperson responded in a written statement. “The Department of Emergency Management is taking all available steps to support dispatchers and ensure residents and visitors have access to the life-saving services provided through 911.”
The union said it expects that many dispatchers will be forced to work mandatory overtime hours, with shifts extending from 40 hours per week to 60. In exchange, the union asked for double pay during the summit, as well as hotel accommodations so that dispatchers with long commutes don’t have to travel home between marathon shifts. Dispatchers earn between $50 and $60 per hour during regular hours, according to city salary data.
The city is currently in negotiations with the union over the conflict. Wilson says officials are now backing away from the word “mobilization,” but still plan to extend many dispatchers’ schedules. City leadership has rejected the request for double pay and public-safety worker status, Wilson said.
“To me, it’s a mobilization. They’re changing our schedules to accommodate this,” Wilson said. “We want to work for the city, but you have to incentivize us to come in. We’re burnt out.”
The potential APEC mobilization comes amid a long-running staffing crisis that has left the city relying on voluntary and mandatory overtime to meet the demand for dispatchers during normal periods. As a result, the city’s 911 center hasn’t met its standard for call-response times—95% of calls picked up within 15 seconds—for years, according to its own data dashboard. Meanwhile, burned-out dispatchers have rung alarm bells that the dispatcher center isn’t ready to handle a major emergency, like a damaging earthquake, due to widespread exhaustion. The emergency-management department does not expect to reach full staffing until 2025, its deputy director said in March.
Wilson worries that the city simply doesn’t have enough dispatchers to handle the high-intensity event. Carroll said in her email to staff that the city will be bringing back as many retired dispatchers as possible during the summit, and that managers will jump in to support operations as needed.
The U.S. Secret Service is coordinating APEC security with support from the San Francisco Police Department and California Highway Patrol as Joe Biden and bevy of other world leaders and CEOs meet in San Francisco, according to spokesperson Priya Clemens. The federal government declared the city a potential target for a terrorist attack or civil disruption while the VIPs are in town, and a multiblock section of the city’s core will be locked down during the nine-day event.
Noah Baustin can be reached at email@example.com