San Diego dispatch center faces staffing issues

Staffing shortage frustrates employees and callers

News San Diego Union-Tribune July 18, 2007
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The San Diego branch of the California Highway Patrol dispatch center is struggling with a high volume of calls and not a lot of employees to deal with them.

There were 1.3 million emergency cell phone calls handled by the Transportation Management Center in 2006, more than double what came in three years ago, according to the California department of Transportation (Caltrans) and California Highway Patrol.

“We have a real problem hiring qualified people and getting them through the one-year probation period,” said the center's CHP commander, Lt. Patrick Symonds. “Most people aren’t cut out for it.”

Dispatchers receive a stream of calls and must quickly sort out what's going on in each incident and decide how best to respond, while often trying to calm the person at the other end of the line.

In late 2003 and early 2004, about one in six of the branch’s dispatch jobs were vacant, according to a study conducted by the state auditor’s office. Now, though the number of incoming calls continues to increase, roughly half the jobs are empty. Twenty-nine employees work at the center, which has a budget for 55 full-time dispatchers.

The staff shortage contributes to more stress for already-swamped dispatchers and long wait times for callers.

In 2004, the average wait time for a caller the busiest stretch of day was 38 seconds. Today it is over a minute, said Lorraine Pianko, the center's communications manager.

To those frustrated by the delays, “there's not much we can say,” Pianko said. “We try to get to their situation as soon as we can.”

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