Amid concerns over lengthening delays in the Sheriff's Department's response to emergency as well as routine telephone calls, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took the first step toward hiring 33 new dispatchers and possibly restricting future development to ensure that growth does not outpace law-enforcement capabilities.
With Supervisor Susan Golding warning that inadequate staffing of the Sheriff's Department's business and emergency telephone lines has led to "unacceptable delays in response . . . to life-threatening emergencies," the supervisors voted unanimously to ask county administrators to try to find ways to finance the new dispatcher positions and to examine how growth affects public safety services.
Noting that some non-emergency callers reporting routine crimes face delays of up to 20 minutes because of the "critically understaffed" Sheriff's Communication Center, Golding pointed out that some of those callers, in frustration, often dial the county's emergency 911 number, thereby overburdening that system and delaying the department's response to "life-and-death emergencies."
"Those extra seconds literally can mean life or death," Golding said. "If we don't reverse the trend, I have no doubt that there will be some deaths that could have been prevented."
Increase in Wait
Over the past four years, the average wait before a dispatcher answered a 911 call increased from 1.3 seconds in 1983 to 4 seconds this year, county figures show. During peak periods, the Communications Center "is consistently exceeding the state's 911 standard of 10 seconds," Golding told her colleagues.
The delay in response to non-emergency calls has been even more dramatic during that period, rising from an average wait of 8.5 seconds in 1983 to slightly more than 1 minute this year. During peak periods, the average wait increased from 19 seconds in 1983 to nearly 2.5 minutes, with 3- to 5-minute waits common, Golding said.
Under Tuesday's action, Chief Administrative Officer Norman Hickey was instructed to report back to the board early next year on how the proposed 33 new dispatcher jobs--to be added to the existing 58 positions--could be funded. In a letter to her colleagues, Golding suggested that 15 of the new positions be created during the first half of next year, while the 18 other slots would be established during the next fiscal year. Overall, the 33 new positions would cost about $750,000 annually.
Despite the tight budget constraints facing the county, Golding described the additional expense as necessary in order to avoid reductions in the level of the county's law enforcement services.
"I compare (the dispatchers) to air traffic controllers," Golding said. "It's not just a switchboard operation. These are life-and-death, high-stress, high-pressure jobs . . . If that initial part of the process is flawed, that harms the entire law-enforcement process."
Under Golding's proposal, the county also will consider adoption of new growth controls in an attempt to stabilize demands on law enforcement and ensure that new development does not reduce law enforcement service to current residents.
Fears of Future Growth
"The sheriff's level of service is not keeping up with the county's general growth pattern," Golding said. "Existing residents should be assured that new development in unincorporated areas is not competing for their current level of law enforcement services. The poor response being generated by the Sheriff's Communications Center indicates that such assurance cannot be provided."
Beyond contributing to delays in response to calls for assistance, future growth also could reduce existing service levels by expanding the size of patrol beats, Golding said.
Although Golding offered no specific growth limitation proposals, she suggested that the county's growth management plan be amended to restrict new development "unless it can be determined that the demand on sheriff's services caused by such growth would not cause a reduction" of existing services.
"While development results in an increased tax base that is supposed to accommodate a corresponding increase in county services, it is obvious in the post-Proposition 13 era that the state is not returning enough revenue to local government for this to occur," Golding said.
Over the next several months, county officials plan to meet with development industry representatives and others to review that part of Golding's proposal. Kim Kilkenny, a spokesman for the Construction Industry Federation, expressed concern about the proposal Tuesday, saying that it could lead to "unfair and burdensome regulations we'd have to oppose." However, Kilkenny added that the construction industry would support "reasonable programs" aimed at linking growth to law-enforcement services.
Most of Tuesday's debate, however, focused on the growing delays in the time it takes sheriff's dispatchers to answer telephone calls from the public.