San Diego will give 9-1-1 fire and medical dispatchers 24.1 percent pay raises over the next two years to boost recruiting and retention as the city strives to shrink emergency response times.
The raises are part of a package deal that reduces mandatory overtime shifts and commits the city to a sharp increase in staffing that will eventually boost the number of fire dispatchers working at all times by 50 percent.
The labor union representing the dispatchers, the Municipal Employees Association, says the deal will boost staff morale and make San Diego fire dispatcher salaries competitive with nearby communities.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer said that will make San Diego safer.
“We’re investing in public safety now so that San Diego remains one of the country’s safest big cities for the foreseeable future,” Faulconer said. “This new contract will ensure that our dispatcher pay is competitive so we can retain and attract the best and brightest people to be there when residents call in their time of need.”
The union says the move was prompted by a downward spiral in dispatcher staffing that accelerated last spring when the vacancies began prompting unscheduled mandatory overtime, prompting even more dispatchers to leave.
A similar staffing problem with police dispatchers prompted large pay raises for them – 26.6 percent over three years – in summer 2016.
Calls to 9-1-1 go directly to police dispatchers, who handle any calls related to crimes and route calls related to fires and medical emergencies to fire dispatchers.
The raises will increase the starting annual base pay for a San Diego fire dispatcher from $41,388 to $51,363, and the top annual base pay will rise from $49,800 to $61,802.
A salary study released by the city in November 2015 showed that San Diego fire dispatchers were making 37 percent less than their counterparts in comparable communities across California.
That included making 56 percent less than dispatchers in Orange County, 31 percent less than dispatchers in North County and 26 percent less than dispatchers working for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The new pay raises are expected to move San Diego dispatchers to the middle of the pack statewide, said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the MEA.
The union’s rank and file approved the raises in an 83 percent to 17 percent vote this fall. The City Council approved the raises in a session closed to the public on Oct. 11 and is scheduled to give them final approval in open session next month.
The raises are a combination of 11.6 percent in previously approved pay hikes and 12.5 percent in new increases negotiated this year.
On July 1, 2018, dispatchers will get an 8.3 percent increase already approved as part of MEA’s last contract agreement with the city in late 2015.
On Jan. 1, 2019, they will get 5 percent raises that were negotiated this year.
On July 1, 2019, they will get 8.3 percent raises – 3.3 percent from the MEA contract and 5 percent negotiated this year.
And on Jan. 1, 2020, they will get 2.5 percent pay hikes that were negotiated this year.
City officials hope the pay hikes will stem an exodus of dispatchers that has reduced staffing to the low 30s – significantly below the 43 fire dispatcher positions funded in the city budget.
The deal also calls for the city to sharply reduce unscheduled mandatory overtime, which has become a common practice during the staffing shortage.
Dispatchers have frequently arrived at work expecting to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., then being told they must stay until 10 p.m., Zucchet said.
The deal also commits the city to increasing the number of fire dispatchers on staff from 43 to 51.
That would allow the city to increase the minimum number of dispatchers working at any time from eight to 12, but the deal prevents an increase to 12 unless the city and the union agree staffing levels have risen enough to allow it.
The changes come as the city has experienced a 22 percent increase in 9-1-1 calls for medical emergencies in the past four years.
The number of emergencies requiring city response has increased from 111,506 in fiscal year 2014 to 136,559 incidents in fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30. The higher number translates to 374 incidents per day and 15 incidents per hour.
The city’s goal is for emergency responders, at least 90 percent of the time, to arrive at life-threatening emergencies within 12 minutes, emergencies that aren’t life-threatening within 15 minutes and non-emergencies within 25 minutes.
Fire and emergency dispatchers must decide which calls fit into which category, which affects whether the city sends only an ambulance or also sends paramedics and other personnel.