The city needs to call 911 on emergency dispatchers

On May 23, 2009, not long after starting their midnight shifts, two San Francisco city employees were told they'd been laid off. Not great timing. Understandably, they didn't feel like working. 

"The pink-slipped employees were upset," said "Jane Doe," who had tried to soothe their feelings while urging them to finish their shift. "They refused. One went home and the other left the area upset."

The employees' absence could have been dire, given the importance of their work: They were supposed to take 911 calls at the city's emergency communications center. 

It was a night-long struggle to make sure emergency calls got through. The soon-to-be-jobless workers "refused to plug in and take the 911 calls," Doe claims. Dispatchers are the first people to take calls for police, fire, and ambulance assistance, and she feared calls wouldn't get through, and so help wouldn't arrive.

But Jane Doe was not rewarded for attempting to cover for management's blunder of handing out pink slips, and then somehow expecting a vital emergency dispatch shift to be covered. Instead, she was allegedly scolded for being insensitive to the laid-off workers' feelings.

This potentially dangerous scenario was just one of a series of allegations in an employee lawsuit filed earlier this month in federal court. "Jane Doe" is the pseudonym of a 911 dispatch employee who claims she was punished for acting as a whistle-blower, purportedly seeking to expose alleged time-card fraud, workplace bullying, cyber-snooping, goldbricking, and other misconduct where timely emergency response might have been compromised. She chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Doe was joined in the suit by another dispatch employee, Anne Raskin, who also claims she was harassed by her co-workers. (Messages seeking comment left with Raskin, the plaintiffs' attorney, and three of the defendants, were not returned by press time.) 

As disgruntled employees, the plaintiffs can be expected to paint themselves in a positive light, criticize their bosses and co-workers, and perhaps even exaggerate complaints in hopes of a lawsuit payoff. But their suit includes enough specific details to make it seem worth opening an official inquiry as to whether public safety may have been compromised.

The suit describes San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management, long subject to allegations of maladministration, as a den of dysfunction, where 911 dispatchers routinely skip work and cover for each other's absences. Workers allegedly spend days surfing the Internet, snooping into other employees' Yahoo accounts, gossiping, and even walking off the job rather than answering emergency calls. Given that the city's 911 system receives around 3,500 calls per day reporting medical emergencies and fires, the public would seem to have a right to know whether the people on the other end of the line make characters from NBC's The Office seem the epitome of competence and efficiency. 

"We're going to have to wait until we see the lawsuit, and even then I don't know what we can comment on it," department director Vicki Hennessy said. 

That's a standard duck-and-cover response from an organization being sued. But the public deserves to know whether the employees behind our 911 system are doing their best to get ambulances, police, and firefighters to the scene on time — or simply screwing around.

For those keeping tabs on the fitful history of San Francisco emergency response, this lawsuit might not be a big surprise. In 1993, a gunman killed eight people at a downtown S.F. high-rise. One victim lay bleeding for 45 minutes while a 911  operator repeatedly assured her help was on the way. Appalled voters approved measures spending $167 million to upgrade the city's emergency response system. 

"They built a new building," said Lucien Canon, emergency response director under Mayor Willie Brown, "and installed computer-aided dispatch, and put in an 800 megahertz radio system." Notwithstanding, a 2006 audit report said that, despite spending $82,797,851 in federal disaster-response money, the department still hadn't incorporated 911 dispatch into the rest of the city's emergency management system. 

The city's top emergency management job "was kind of a political patronage position," said former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin. "I got a lot of internal reports from professional staff deeply concerned about the top ranks of the department."

In April 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in a series that during the previous four years, 439 people had died waiting for medical help in response after calling 911. After the Chronicle series went to press, Mayor Gavin Newsom promised to have experts evaluate the system and fix the response time problem. A subsequent 2008 report showed some improvement in response times. Also that year, the mayor appointed Hennessy, an experienced sheriff's department executive, as Emergency Management executive director. She says she is constantly fine-tuning to further hasten 911 response, with particular focus on the dispatch room. 

"We have all kinds of commendations we give for instances where a dispatcher did excellent work," she said. "But we also have times when they don't do good jobs, and we have retraining. And if they don't improve, discipline can be a step."

But allegations in Doe and Raskin's lawsuit suggest response time might be further hastened by resolving what the complaint describes as a hostile work environment. The suit also alleges employees in the dispatch center played a version of hooky round-robin, in which one would cover for another's missed shifts. The plaintiffs, who claim not to have participated in this scam, were harassed after they complained to their superiors, the lawsuit claims. 

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