At 8:57 a.m. on Wednesday, June 14, three minutes before her shift began, Anastacia Byrne, a veteran dispatcher at San Francisco’s 911 call center, settled in at her desk and prepared to plug in her headset.
Just then, “I hear another call taker say, ‘Someone’s shooting people,’” Byrne recalls. “I look around at all the other terminals, and I see there’s multiple calls from one location, close to San Bruno” Avenue.
She jumped on the line to take her first call. It came from the same location as the others pouring in: the United Parcel Service distribution facility at the base of Potrero Hill. These were the first moments of what would become one of the worst mass shootings in recent San Francisco history. A gunman would kill three UPS drivers — shooting one execution-style in the head — before turning the gun on himself.
Byrne’s job that morning was to prevent her caller from joining the list of the dead.
Just as they are every day, Byrne and her fellow dispatchers were the first of the city’s first responders that morning. If they didn’t answer and manage those initial frantic calls, police and ambulance drivers wouldn’t have known to respond, and the carnage could have been far worse.
But despite playing this crucial role, the city’s 911 dispatchers aren’t classified as public safety workers like police, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and some other groups. Instead, as part of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, they have the same contract as clerks and other clerical workers.
This designation is not just wrong — if Byrne is a clerk, I’m a rocket scientist — it isn’t fair. It means dispatchers have to work 15 years longer than their public safety counterparts to qualify for their maximum pension, and it means their pensions aren’t as high.
For at least seven years, the dispatchers have been asking to be reclassified, arguing that an earlier retirement age and a better pension would provide an incentive to persevere in the grueling, emotionally taxing job. But they’ve gotten nowhere.
Partly as a result, the San Francisco 911 call center is in crisis, not able to train enough new dispatchers to make up for the more senior ones who quit in frustration. As we have reported in previous columns, morale is terrible, and the results can be devastating to a city that desperately needs these workers to answer the phone.
The short-staffed center isn’t answering the urgent calls it receives quickly enough. A quarter of 911 calls dialed in San Francisco take too long to answer. The national standard is that 90 percent of 911 calls should be answered within 10 seconds, but San Francisco has been stuck at around 75 percent, reaching 80 percent just this month. It hasn’t met the national standard since 2012.
The city’s police, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies have their own retirement plans. The dispatchers want to join the city’s “miscellaneous safety plan,” which includes probation officers, district attorney’s investigators and juvenile court counselors.
That seems like a reasonable request. Our city’s safety surely relies more on a fully staffed, well-functioning 911 call center than it does on the actions of those other three miscellaneous groups. But the dispatchers can’t get the city even to price out how much the switch would cost.
It’s just one more frustration in a job full of them. But those concerns must be set aside whenever the next crisis call comes in. And that’s what Byrne did on the morning of June 14.
The voice on her line was a frightened woman, calling from inside the UPS facility. “There’s a shooter in the building,” she told Byrne. “We heard multiple shots, and now we’re locked in a room.”
Dispatchers rarely learn much about the desperate people they’re helping. Byrne thinks the woman’s name was Cindy or Sydney. The woman whispered that she was an office worker at the facility and had just returned to work from vacation.
She’d been in the hallway on the third floor of the building when she heard shots, she said. So she ran into an office, locked the door, hid behind a desk and dialed 911. Other workers inside the building were calling 911, too.
As they took the calls, the 911 dispatchers were the first to begin piecing together the details of the terror unfolding inside the facility. Their computer system allows them to enter information they gather from callers, as well as from police and medics over their radios, to populate a screen that all the dispatchers can view. Eventually a picture of the crisis emerged — where in the building people were hiding, where police were searching, where bodies lay dead.
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle
An officer helps guard the UPS building on San Bruno Avenue after a gunman went on a deadly rampage in June.
An officer helps guard the UPS building on San Bruno Avenue after a…
Byrne could hear other dispatchers charged with working the police and fire radios yelling about how many possible victims there were, how many ambulances needed to respond. They knew there was a school close by and that terrified people were running into the street.
But at that moment, “I’m not really focused on that, because I’m more focused on her,” Byrne said of the whispering woman. “She’s not in any quote-unquote physical danger at this second, but she could be, and she’s just as scared as anybody else. You think you’re going to die.”
Byrne kept asking the woman questions: Could she hear footsteps, voices or more gunshots in the hallway? Dispatchers are trained to tell people to run from dangerous situations, but that wasn’t the right advice in this case.
“If you can’t run, then you protect yourself, barricade as much as you can and then find something to fight with,” Byrne said. She instructed the woman to try to find something heavy she could wield.
Calls like these come in on the 911 line every day. Car crashes, shootings, stabbings, apartment buildings on fire. Children who are choking or have drowned. People suffering heart attacks or strokes. People who have found a relative who’s just hanged himself or shot himself in the head.
In 11 years as a dispatcher, Byrne has taken calls about babies who have stopped breathing. She’s counseled an elderly woman on how to perform CPR on her dying husband. She took a call from a man who told her he’d just killed his mother. As tough as those conversations are, she said, one of the hardest parts of the job is rarely knowing the end of the story. Once she’s summoned help and made sure it’s arrived, her job is done.
“We don’t have a lot of closure,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t know if someone who jumped off a building made it. Or you don’t know if the baby who stopped breathing made it.”
The calls don’t stop, and the buildup of stress doesn’t either. It’s worsened by the center being so understaffed; dispatchers are regularly required to work overtime shifts and rarely get weekends off. Byrne said she loves her job, but it’s a punishing routine. The 46-year-old Ingleside resident works a 14-hour shift, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. She’s often missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with her two kids.
At least six San Francisco dispatchers have quit or retired since April. The center now employs about 110 fully trained dispatchers; a full staff would number 165.
The city is focused on bringing on more dispatchers, training new ones, persuading retired ones to return part time and moving employees over from other departments. Ten to 12 newly trained dispatchers should be on the job by next month, with similarly sized groups ready to start in December and again every few months throughout 2018 and 2019. But the city’s Department of Emergency Management doesn’t appear to be doing much to keep those already on the job.
One obvious step: At least consider an improved retirement age or pension. The city’s pension calculations are complicated and vary depending on when an employee started. But in general, a recently hired dispatcher can earn a maximum of 75 percent of his or her salary at age 65. Public safety pensions can reach a maximum of 90 percent of salary at age 50.
Yes, the city’s pension tab is huge, and it’s understandable City Hall is wary of adding any more workers to the public safety category. But there’s also a matter of fairness — acknowledging the dispatchers are not doing the jobs of clerks.
“I think 911 dispatchers are historically overlooked for the critical role they play in public safety. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Robert Smuts, deputy director of the Department of Emergency Management.
He pointed to a study by Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 2012. It showed that 911 dispatchers are at high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder despite not witnessing the traumatic events they deal with.
Smuts, the mayor’s office and the controller’s office referred questions about a pension switch to the city’s Department of Human Resources.
Susan Gard, chief of policy for the department, said the city has “the utmost respect” for its 911 dispatchers but that reclassifying them would require going to the ballot to ask voters to amend the City Charter.
“It doesn’t seem likely that voters would be interested in increasing public employee pensions at this time,” she said, adding: “No doubt we would have a lot of dispatcher retirements if they had this formula, exacerbating our current challenge.”
Ron Davis, a dispatcher for 16 years and a union steward, said that’s not necessarily true. Half of the city’s 911 dispatchers have been working less than five years, he said, and the change would actually encourage them to work longer.
The city could find a compromise. The Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County, Va., reclassified its 911 dispatchers — who were similarly understaffed and overworked, and suffering from terrible morale — to public safety workers in 2005.
Before the change, dispatchers had to work 35 years and make it to age 60 to earn a full pension. Only 15 people had lasted that long in the 30 years before the change, according to Steve Souder, the director of that county’s Department of Public Safety Communications from 2005 until last year.
After the change, dispatchers could retire at age 50 after working 25 years. Since then, 58 dispatchers have made it to full retirement. Souder said the amount of their pension didn’t change, but knowing they could retire so much earlier kept them on the job, and it evened out financially for the county because of needing fewer training classes.
Asked what he would say to San Francisco city officials who are resistant to the change here, Souder said, “They need to get their heads out of the sand. The 911 call taker is the most important person in the entire public safety delivery system. It all begins there.”
That was true on the morning of June 14. Byrne stayed on the call with the woman hidden behind the desk in the UPS facility for about 20 minutes, trying to keep her calm, urging her to stay hidden, updating her on what was happening in the rest of the building. She found herself crying at one point, something that can happen when the caller is particularly calm and stoic, she said.
On the computer screen, Byrne could see that officers were clearing the facility floor by floor. When they neared the woman’s location on the third floor, officers yelled to announce themselves.
“You know, it’s fine. I think we’re good,” the caller told Byrne.
“I said, ‘OK,’ and I told her she was amazing,” Byrne said. “What else do you say to somebody?”
There wasn’t time to say much of anything. Byrne hung up the phone and immediately picked up the next call.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @hknightsf
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