Ariz. city develops task force to address problems at 911 center

The task force was developed after a third-party review found problems with staffing levels, training, morale, harassment and more at Tuscon's Public Safety Communications Department


By Jasmine Demers
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

TUSCON, Ariz. — The results of a workplace assessment recently completed for Tucson's Public Safety Communications Department has caused concern among city leaders who are working to address "fundamental problems in the operation of the department."

The department is responsible for dispatching 911 calls for police and fire departments.

The City of Tuscon has formed a task force to address workplace issues at the Tuscon Public Safety Communications Department after a third-party review found multiple problems with staffing, training and morale.
The City of Tuscon has formed a task force to address workplace issues at the Tuscon Public Safety Communications Department after a third-party review found multiple problems with staffing, training and morale. (Photo/City of Tuscon)

The third-party review by Traaen & Associates LLC includes interviews with 108 employees and outlines a variety of workplace issues, including staffing levels, recruitment, training, employee morale, instances of harassment and lack of accountability.

There are currently 165 budgeted positioned within the department, but not all of them are filled, according to the city manager.

"The contents and allegations contained within this report, if true, are simply not acceptable," Mayor Regina Romero said.

"First, and most importantly, our 911 call takers and dispatchers are the first line of emergency response for our community," Romero said. "They are the unsung heroes who provide the support that our police officers, firefighters and paramedics need to be successful. How these calls are handled can be the difference between life and death. Their role is absolutely pivotal in the emergency response services that we provide our residents. That is why I was so concerned when I read this report."

In 2017, the city made the decision to consolidate police and fire dispatchers, a transition that has proven difficult and may be the cause of much of the department's dysfunction. According to the report, employees reported having two very distinct cultures under one roof and "an inherent rivalry between those serving the Tucson Police Department and the Tucson Fire Department."

Specifically, employees who were interviewed for the assessment reported a culture of "extreme fear." The report said there were instances of alleged bias and marginalization against the LGBTQ community, inconsistent discipline and extreme attrition rates.

Knowing they needed to address the ongoing issues within the department, Jamie O'Leary, director of public safety communications, and City Manager Michael Ortega requested the report over the summer.

"We're not surprised to see those challenges put forth in a report," O'Leary said. "We've spent the last 11 months since I've been here working through those very overarching issues, which include employee morale, staffing as well as the perception of how employees are treated. We take all recommendations seriously."

While they agreed there are several workplace issues that need to be addressed, O'Leary and Ortega said many of the claims were "inaccurate or misleading." For example, O'Leary said the comment about the LGBTQ community was made by a disgruntled employee who was being terminated for violating the department's bullying policy. O'Leary also said the reporting of inconsistent discipline was inaccurate and didn't show that, in most cases, the same person was being disciplined for multiple infractions.

"All inaccuracies aside, we know there are issues that we need to continue to address," O'Leary said. "It's never a bad thing to take a hard look at yourself and make your center better. And the public deserves full confidence, so that's where we're going to put our focus right now."

Along with O'Leary, a new task force will include Tucson's police and fire chiefs, as well as staff members and union representatives to ensure that all voices are being heard, according to Ortega. Together, they will work to address the department's workplace conditions and culture and come up with effective solutions.

Ortega said a progress report would be completed within 90 days.

The report provided 14 recommendations that will be addressed by the task force, which included requiring each department manager to work 12-hour shifts serving as a call taker, dispatcher and supervisor under the direction of a long-term employee, completing an audit of all disciplinary action since November 2019 and designing a marketing and recruitment plan. O'Leary said 13 of the 14 recommendations are already being worked on, but the task force will help move many of these actions along.

"We save lives, we protect responders and we serve our community. That is our mission," she said. "And after we achieve that mission, then we have to also recognize that employee happiness and employee satisfaction certainly makes their environment better. The most important thing that we can do is improve our work environment and hold our employees to high standards."

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(c)2020 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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