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Tucson 911 system 'critical but stable' after top official resigns after just 14 months
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Tucson 911 system 'critical but stable' after top official resigns after just 14 months

Upgrades to training and recruitment practices and pay raises for personnel who now make $15.32 an hour for high-stress work are being considered

Since the city consolidated police and fire dispatchers into one location in 2017, problems have festered.

without creating more workspCall takers at their desks at the City of Tucson Public Safety Communications Center, on Nov. 19, 2019.

Tucson’s troubled 911 system is in “critical but stable” condition after the sudden resignation of its top boss after a year on the job, the new interim leader said.

Jamie O’Leary, director of the city’s Public Safety Communications Department that operates 911, recently quit the $175,000-a-year post 14 months after she was hired.

“After much deliberation, I have decided to tender my resignation,” O’Leary’s Jan. 12 letter to the city manager said. “Compelling personal family needs require me to return to Oklahoma,” she wrote.

The city offered O’Leary $15,000 for moving expenses to relocate to Tucson from Oklahoma City, where she previously served as that city’s 911 director.

The timing of the departure coincides with an upcoming 90-day review of how much progress has been made in fixing numerous problems at the city’s 911 center including high turnover, low morale, overcrowding and inadequate training and supervision.

The shortcomings were identified last fall in a $40,000 consultant’s study in which 911 employees described O’Leary’s leadership style as “dominance, anger (and) sarcasm.”

City Manager Michael Ortega, who hired O’Leary, would not comment on whether the pending progress report was a factor in her exit. “I do not comment on personnel matters,” he said.

For now, the 911 system, which handles about 4,000 calls a day, is being led by the Tucson Police Department’s second-in-command, Deputy Chief Chad Kasmar.

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“If I was a doctor, I would say we’re critical but stable,” Kasmar said in an interview.

A high-functioning 911 system is supposed to be able to answer emergency calls within 10 seconds 90% of the time, but local operators are only able to reach that goal 75 to 80% of the time, Kasmar said.

“Right now we’re asking for patience during peak call periods when it might take a little longer than we want,” for a 911 operator to answer, he said.

Kasmar said progress is underway but much work remains to fix problems that have festered since 2017, when the city consolidated police and fire dispatchers into one location without creating additional workspace for the resulting larger workforce. According to the consultant’s report, employees reported having two very distinct cultures under one roof and “an inherent rivalry between those serving the Tucson Police Department and the Tucson Fire Department.”

Lane Mandle, a city spokeswoman, said the construction project has been a complicated by the need to create false floors over intricate wiring and technical installations. The pandemic also created a work slowdown that affected the timing, she said.

Like many communities nationwide, Tucson suffers from a chronic 911 staffing shortage that has only grown worse during the pandemic, Kasmar said. The local system is authorized for 165 personnel, but only about 110 are available for duty in any 24-hour period, he said.

A number of workers have quit over lack of child care during the pandemic or due to concerns their cramped workplace “makes it almost impossible to be socially distant,” he said. The department also had a coronavirus outbreak among employees last summer.

The larger quarters are expected to be ready in September. Kasmar said a package of other changes is being considered, including upgrades to training and recruitment practices and pay raises for personnel who now make $15.32 an hour for high-stress work.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @AzStarConsumer


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