Chronic understaffing in Phoenix 911 dispatch center exacerbated by pandemic, examined after operator dies

Nicole Sadek
Arizona Republic
A Phoenix police communications operator works a 911 call. The number of vacancies in the dispatch center has sharply increased over the last few years.

It was Pamela Cooper's first week back at work after spending six weeks recovering from COVID-19.

The 911 operator, who had a history of asthma, was scheduled to work a regular, 10-hour shift at the Phoenix call center, but she was instructed to stay an extra six hours due to short-staffing.

Cooper collapsed the next day. She spent nearly a week on life support at Banner Baywood Medical Center before she died on March 5. She was 49.

The Phoenix Police Department's 911 operators say an endemic understaffing problem has led to hours of mandated overtime, leaving dispatchers depleted and creating, in Cooper's case, fatal consequences.

"It's gotten to the point, and we've mentioned this in the past year to the city, that the burnout in police communication is more than anything else in the city," said Frank Piccioli, president of AFSCME Local 2960, a union that represents Phoenix city employees.

The novel coronavirus has exasperated the staffing shortage, which the union says already was dire due to low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. The City Council is addressing some of those issues, but not all, the union says.

The average number of vacancies in the Phoenix Police Department's 911 dispatch center has increased during the past three years. In 2018, one-ninth of positions were vacant. Today, one-sixth of positions are unfilled, according to data provided by the city to The Arizona Republic.

With a limited number of employees to answer urgent calls, 911 police operators have been required to work overtime and standby shifts. Plus, some employees have been funneled into a new position to do supervisory work, decreasing the amount of people who are answering emergency calls, according to Dorie Levy, a union steward.

Since Cooper's death, the city has taken steps to increase the salaries of 911 operators to attract more applicants, a process that has been two years in the making, Councilmember Laura Pastor said at a City Council meeting this month. But the problems of overworked and fatigued employees have yet to be fully remedied.

Operator dies after working nearly 16-hour shift

Cooper was the type of person who "never hesitated to help anybody," her mom Shirley Ryan said.

Plus, she was a great trivia partner.

"Pam just had a quick-witted, very intelligent sense of humor," her husband Joel Cooper said. "She likes to claim that she had more useless knowledge than anyone should have."

Cooper worked as a 911 operator for more than two decades, supporting her husband, a stand-up comedian who ran out of unemployment pay, and her widowed mother on Social Security.

She more than likely contracted coronavirus from a coworker, her husband said.

According to the city, the Police Department has seen the highest number of COVID-19 infections of all departments since last March.

Of the nearly 780 police employees who had contracted COVID-19 as of March 30, 30% were civilians — meaning 911 operators, administrative employees or others who do not serve as sworn officers.

The city did not share a monthly breakdown of cases, but Piccioli said that the virus ran rampant in the dispatch center between November and January.

"There were daily five, six dispatchers with COVID," he said.

Cooper returned to work once she began to feel better, and by that time, she had run out of paid sick leave. But during a shift that began Feb. 26, she starting feeling ill.

Screenshots of texts with her mother show that Cooper had notified management that she was having difficulty breathing. She told her supervisor, "I might die."

Her supervisor — who was fired from the police force in 2014 after he misled law enforcement about an off-duty road rage incident — responded, "Please don't. Not on my watch," computer-aided dispatch messages reveal. The messages were included in a notice of claim the family filed against the city last month.

She told her mom that if she left, she would be "written up." Two write-ups could lead to termination, according to Afnan Shukry, a lawyer at MLG Attorneys at Law who is representing the family.

Despite her condition, Cooper was instructed to stay an additional six hours.

The next day, Cooper awoke with difficulty breathing. She collapsed, but not before telling her husband to call 911. That was the last thing she said, according to legal documents.

"What they did was irresponsible, and they need to step up to the plate and accept their responsibility for that," said Joel Cooper, who has filed a $35 million claim against the city. "There's nothing that they can say that would make it make us feel better that she's gone."

Ryan echoed his sentiments.

"I am so torn between grief and anger," she said. "An apology at this point is a spit in the face."

The city has not responded to the family's claim notice as of April 15.

The Phoenix New Times has reported extensively on the case.

Union leaders decry working conditions

Cooper's death has cast a spotlight on problems within the police call center.

Levy, a co-worker and union representative, said there are fewer and fewer employees answering 911 calls, causing those essential workers to take on more than they can handle.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with mandatory overtime becoming more common. According to a spokesperson for the city's human resources department, supervisors began mandating weekly overtime in January in response to staffing shortages.

"Prior to that we had what they called mandatory standby, where you had to sign up for two standby shifts per month, so when they did the mandated eight hours of overtime, it's like, 'Wait a minute, you mean you're making us do the overtime and the standby?'" Levy said. "Some of the operators are working 14 to 15 hours, two to three times a week."

She added that the department in recent years created new "lead" positions to give employees an opportunity to do supervisory work. But, as a result, fewer floor operators are bombarded with more calls.

Piccioli said that physical conditions of the workspace have added insult to injury. Prior to Cooper's death, operators were instructed to use only one Clorox wipe per shift and Plexiglas shields were not fully mounted until February.

A city report states that 911 operators expressed a desire for Clorox brand wipes, but due to a nationwide shortage, the supply was limited. The city also had to reorder missing Plexiglas parts from the vendor, meaning partitions weren't fully installed until mid-February, the report shows.

"They took no serious precautions in protecting anybody in that office, and I'm surprised that it took this long for something like this to happen," Joel Cooper said.

Low wages further irritated chronic understaffing.

Phoenix police dispatchers had the lowest starting salary in the Valley, despite receiving a high number of calls relatively, according to the city report. Until Cooper's death, entry-level 911 operators in Phoenix made $20.23 per hour.

The city increased entry-level pay by $3.10 per hour on March 8, and after a compensation study, the council voted unanimously on April 7 to increase all dispatcher classifications by two to three pay steps.

City investigates following Cooper's death

Phoenix City Councilmember Betty Guardado called on the City Manager's Office to investigate the department following Cooper's death.

"I just want to make sure that none of our employees have to decide from coming to work and risking their lives," Guardado told The Republic. "No worker ever should ever have to make that decision."

Although the council approved pay increases, several issues remain.

Piccioli said that issues of workplace cleanliness were addressed without urgency and that further steps should be taken to mitigate COVID-19 spread, especially as the pandemic peters on.

A city report shows 911 operators had been asked to "be judicious" in using sanitizing wipes because they were scarce. The City Manager's Office and Human Resources Department said the reason for instructing employees to ration wipes was because the operators preferred Clorox wipes and there was a nationwide shortage.

"I have 50 email messages back and forth, people saying they're not cleaning properly, me going to the city, the city never hiring a special cleaning crew," Piccioli said. "They didn't clean the keyboards, they didn't clean the partitions. It was a struggle to even get deep cleaning, even during the major outbreak."

After prodding from the union, the city worked to allocate funding for more cleaning at call center sites. The "enhanced cleaning" practices were implemented Jan. 25, according to the report.

The delayed cleaning improvements do not provide solace to Cooper's family, who hasn't even hit the "tip of the iceberg" on medical bills and personal expenses.

A GoFundMe for Cooper's family has raised just over $5,600 as of April 15.

"There's nothing that they can say that would make it make us feel better that she's gone," Joel Cooper said. "She didn't deserve to die. They should have sent her home."

Pamela Cooper, a 20-year veteran at the Phoenix 911 dispatcher center, died March 5.

Guardado acknowledged the tragic incident, but expressed that she was hopeful that pay increases would at least increase the applicant pool and retention, and thereby decrease long hours.

"More will be needed to be resolved and improve our city services, and we know that our operators are still understaffed, but I am optimistic that (the pay increase) is a step in the right direction," Guardado said during the April 7 city council meeting.

Reach the reporter at nicole.sadek@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NicoleSadek.