Miami Beach struggles to recruit 911 personnel

05/08/2014 5:25 PM

05/08/2014 6:57 PM

An effort to hire dispatchers and call takers for Miami Beach’s chronically understaffed 911 call center has been long and largely unsuccessful.

Of 30 candidates who applied in the last six months, only two passed the rigorous background check required, according to a city memo.

One candidate was offered employment and recently started training, which can take about a year to complete, said Miami Beach Emergency Manager Chuck Tear.

Meanwhile, at least one employee has left the call center — to become an officer, Tear said.

The problem of recruiting and retaining dispatchers is not unique to Miami Beach, said Miami-Dade County Police Capt. George Perera, who’s in charge of the communications bureau there.

“This type of job is very difficult and stressful job. This is a problem that’s national. Every place has a problem with hiring people to do this work and retaining them,” Perera said.

Tear said the city will soon launch an advertising campaign to recruit employees, and is looking at outsourcing recruitment and hiring to help attract more people.

Miami Beach got more serious about hiring more dispatchers after embarrassing news reports in January that showed pictures of dispatchers who appeared to be asleep on the job.

Since the news stories ran, both the county and the state have called for audits of the department, according to city memos.

The pictures forced the city to acknowledge what police and union officials say has been a long-running problem: that the 911 center is regularly understaffed, forcing dispatchers to pull overtime shifts.

City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote in an email earlier this year that he identified the call center as “an area of concern” as early as the summer of 2013. He became city manager in April 2013.

Beach commissioners approved seven new hires in the department when they passed this fiscal year’s budget.

Still, the positions went unfilled.

A memo from the city manager says it has taken six months to background candidates who have applied to work in the call center. Perera, the Miami-Dade captain, said his agency takes about nine weeks to complete a background check.

In Miami Beach, as in the county, the police department handles the background checks.

“Any sort of police job is going to undergo a very rigorous background” check, said Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police President Alex Bello. “Any candidate who applies understands that obviously our job is very sensitive. There’s a lot of information you have access to.”

The background check includes fingerprinting, criminal checks, interviews with neighbors and previous employers — even a polygraph test.

Passing the background check doesn’t mean a candidate will be hired. Dispatchers and call takers still have to undergo months of training. In Miami-Dade, the training takes almost a year — and about half of the candidates won’t make it, Perera said.

A memo by Miami Beach Communications Manager Clarise R. Ferguson notes that the department is working to establish “telecommunication academies” with local universities. Tear said the department is currently in talks with Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University.

Representatives for the communication center are also meeting regularly with the human resources department to address “the most notable concerns” of the division. The two departments are also working on “streamlining and updating the hiring process,” according to the memo.

Ferguson’s memo also notes the department is working on selecting a new radio system.

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