With New Orleans’ 911 center facing problems in answering calls as quickly as desired, two City Council members are proposing to add up to $2 million to the operation’s budget to increase its staff in the coming year.
Council President Jason Williams and Councilwoman Susan Guidry announced the plan Wednesday, a day before the full council is expected to take up a long list of amendments to the $597 million budget proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu a month ago.
Landrieu’s administration responded that it opposes the proposal because it would take money the New Orleans Police Department plans to use to buy cameras to read and track license plates.
It is not clear whether other council members support the Williams-Guidry plan.
Beefing up the staff at the 911 center — operated by the semi-autonomous Orleans Parish Communications District — is crucial to ensuring that emergency calls are answered quickly, something that has not always been the case, Williams said.
“We turn to these people during the worst moments in our lives,” he said.
Williams recounted a forum he held in St. Roch on sexual assaults at which he said residents repeatedly told “harrowing stories about 911.” In one case, he said, a woman told him she had called 911 when she realized someone was breaking into her home. No one answered, and she was sexually assaulted during the incident.
The 911 center now has about 55 call takers, who are the ones who actually answer the phones, as well as 24 dispatchers to communicate the information to emergency agencies and five supervisors.
Under the Williams-Guidry proposal, the center would add about 10 call takers, eight dispatchers and seven supervisors. The council members said they also would be pushing for raises to increase the average salary for call takers from $25,000 to $34,000.
National standards call for 95 percent of 911 calls to be answered within 20 seconds. Officials say the city’s center meets that benchmark about 90 to 95 percent of the time, though Williams said there are dramatic cases of longer delays — or no answer at all.
Williams and Guidry estimated it would cost between $1 million and $1.8 million to implement their proposed improvements. To offset the cost, they proposed doing away with a plan to spend $850,000 on a system of license-plate-reading cameras throughout the city that could be used to track vehicles suspected of being used in crimes.
Landrieu rejected that idea.
Press Secretary Hayne Rainey said in an email that the mayor’s proposed budget “invests heavily in public safety, all of our top priority. ... We do not support removing money from NOPD.”
Consolidation efforts underway at the communications district will cross-train call takers to handle all types of emergency calls — whether for the Police Department, Fire Department or Emergency Medical Services — rather than assigning each employee to a different agency. But call takers will have to keep working while they’re being trained, which could add more stress to an already stressful job, Guidry said.
“We’re setting it up to fail if we don’t start off with the appropriate number of personnel,” she said.
The council typically makes various small tweaks to the budget before approving a final version, but Williams described the amendment as the largest attempt to move money around in years.
It’s not clear that improving operations at the 911 center would significantly improve the NOPD’s dismal response times, which averaged about an hour and 19 minutes through the first half of 2015. In a large number of cases, the delays in those cases can be traced to a backlog of calls for officers, rather than problems with 911 dispatch.
But the issues at the NOPD show what can happen if staffing levels are allowed to reach a crisis point, Williams said.
“You only have to look at the NOPD to see what happens if we don’t act soon enough,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.