City of Tucson: Cross training means lower 911 wait times

Increase in 911 call taker retention

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Ever called 911 and been put on hold? The city of Tucson is saying it has been able to change that as of the past year thanks to cross training of call takers and dispatchers to be able to handle both fire and police calls.

Cross training of 911 staff started in December last year when Mayor Johnathan Rothschild and the city council adopted a plan to consolidate fire and police 911 staffers. Because of that they’re able to pay them more since they have to do and know more than before.

Chris Conger, the deputy director of Public Safety Communications for the city, says that in nearly a year since the city started cross training its employees they’ve already seen the positive affect.

“I think people are really receptive to the challenge of cross training and knowing all of the disciplines," Conger said. "We’ve already seen a lot of improvement in customer service complaints where folks aren’t waiting on the phone as long and then they’re only talking to one person instead of getting transferred several times for the same emergency.”

One city of Tucson 911 call taker who has been with the city since before cross training was available says it’s a perk and so is the higher pay that results from it. But what really motivates him to do the job is helping people in need.

“It’s intense but honestly it’s rewarding,” René Gamez, a call taker with the city for the past 14 years, said.

Gamez said that he was looking for a job where he felt fulfilled that also allowed him to help other people in the community. He found his way to being a call taker and has been doing it ever since. Thanks to his many years as a call taker Gamez now trains new hires.

“It’s that type of job where every call is an urgent call. So you learn to kind of deal with it and try to keep them calm because you get better answers from the call taker when you stay calm,” Gamez said.

The low staff numbers, which created a backup of 911 calls both across the U.S. and in Tucson, is thanks in part to the lengthy training, the low pay and intensity of the job. All of that kept people at bay from the job, Conger says.

Conger says that for about five years the city struggled to find and retain 911 staff. Since the city signed off on cross training call takers and dispatcher - meaning a pay increase for call takers from $16 to $17.50 and dispatchers from $17 to $19.24 - Conger says retention has drastically increased to that 63 percent attrition rate.

Regardless of the pay or difficulty the job sometimes brings, Gamez says being a 911 call taker is worth it. Even when he gets calls that he says he will never forget.

“I got a call where boyfriend was shot, victim’s girlfriend is holding (the) guy in her hands, and you just kind of hear everything going on in the background and that’s tough. It sticks with you. But ... once you’re in it and you’re in that call, you’re doing everything you can to help them and you forget your anxiety and you just kind of work through it,” he said.

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