Several sergeants with the Austin Police Department (APD) are working overtime taking 9-1-1 calls to fill vacant dispatch positions amid the ongoing staffing crisis in the city.
The City of Austin is currently facing a staffing crisis in its 9-1-1 call center, with nearly 50 vacancies for call takers, 16 for dispatchers and seven other positions that need filling. Police officials say the shortage is leading to longer wait times for callers who are facing emergencies.
Sergeant Lee Knouse, who is normally an evening patrol shift supervisor, has been working overtime as a call taker for the past six months. He believes that the shortage of call takers is a serious problem that needs to be addressed urgently.
“You’re in a crisis or having a problem. You pick up the phone, you call 9-1-1. Well, if there’s a bunch of calls holding because there’s no call takers, then obviously that’s a problem,” Knouse told KVUE News.
Despite the challenges, Knouse finds the experience of being a call taker to be rewarding. The officer said that he has gained a new perspective during his time filling in and understands the unique and challenging skill set required for the job. He encourages anyone who is able to apply to be a call taker and make a difference.
“It’s also been good for me to see kind of what they do and the challenges or just what a unique and challenging skill set it is to answer the phone, to listen to some of these problems,” Knouse said.
Police officials say the ultimate goal is to hire more people to fill the vacancies and eliminate the need for APD sergeants to work overtime. However, the shortage has already pushed APD over its budget, which was a little over $7.7 million for the entire 2023 fiscal year. In just six months, the department has already spent more than $13 million.
The shortage of call takers and dispatchers in Austin has been a cause for concern, and the City Council have pushed for answers and solutions after reports of callers waiting up to 15 minutes for service. The city is hoping that pay incentives and a recruitment drive will improve the situation and reduce the wait times in the emergency call center.
While it can be a stressful job, Knouse believes that there is a lot of job satisfaction in being a call taker, and that they are good at reaching out and understanding the stress levels of callers.
“It can be a stressful job, but it’s also really rewarding. I see that there’s a lot of job satisfaction through the call takers. I also see that they do have a certain amount of stress, so I think they’re really good at kind of reaching out and understanding the stress levels,” Knouse said.
This wouldn’t be the first police department to allow officers to work overtime on dispatch duty. Last year, the St. Louis Police Department decided to give officers the opportunity to work overtime on dispatch when over a third of the dispatcher positions were empty.