For Atlanta’s ‘overlooked’ and understaffed 911 center, pay raise could be on the horizon

Over two years ago, when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a 30% pay raise for the city’s police officers, it was heralded as a big win for department morale, recruitment and retention.

Not included in that group of employees who got the bonus were the dozens of 911 operators who work in a call center on Peachtree Street less than a mile north of Atlanta Police Department headquarters. They answer thousands of emergency calls every day and dispatch police officers across the city, a demanding job made more stressful by the pandemic.

Like the rest of the police department, Atlanta’s 911 call center struggles with recruitment and retention. It currently employs about 120 people, about 45 short of its target, said Captain Jeff Baxter, the assistant director of the center.

“This group of people are sometimes not recognized as a true part of public safety. ... They have to endure people at their worst moments, and that’s call after call after call,” Baxter said. “They often get overlooked.”

The Video Integration Center, which monitors security cameras across the city, is shown from the main floor of Atlanta's 911 call center on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

A new administrative order from the mayor could change that. Earlier this month, Bottoms directed the city’s human resources department to work with APD to conduct a pay study for the call center, to determine whether the staff’s salaries should be increased. As part of the pay study, the city will likely research what 911 operators make in similar-sized cities.

The call center has “experienced an increased number of vacancies in recent months,” Bottoms’ order states. Pay was identified as “one of the primary issues with recruiting and retaining 911 call center employees.”

Right now, the annual starting salary for a 911 operator in Atlanta is around $35,000 to $37,000, Baxter said, adding that he believes the salary should be “obviously higher than that.” The starting salary for a police officer is $48,500, according to the department’s website.

Baxter thinks a pay raise could also help with recruitment and ensure that the center is fully staffed at all times.

Shundana Griggs is a 21-year veteran at the call center. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

“It’s a unique, niche job of highly trained people, mostly women, that are there 24 hours a day,” Baxter said, adding that about 20 potential candidates are currently in the hiring pipeline.

The call center employees who answer the phones are trained to get as much information as possible in a short amount of time, gathering details about what happened and where, and often calming down distressed callers. Another team of employees specializes in being the real-time link to Atlanta’s police precincts, dispatching officers as information comes in from a call.

In December 2019, over a year after the 30% pay raises for police were announced, Bottoms said the city’s firefighters would get an average raise of nearly 20%. The last time the 911 operators got a pay increase was summer 2019, when they got a 3.1% raise.

Atlanta City Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit recently visited the 911 center after getting complaints from constituents about slow emergency response times after Hurricane Delta hit the region in October.

The result of the trip was “a mixture of frustration and really being humbled by and inspired by the job that those folks do down there,” said Matzigkeit, whose district includes much of Buckhead. “We have these folks who are on the frontlines and there’s not enough of them, and their job is extremely stressful as it is.”

Griggs works at her desk at the call center last week. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

The councilman sat with one operator and listened for 45 minutes as she fielded calls and directed officers to respond.

“At the end of it, I told her, ... ‘There’s no way I can do your job,’” he said.

Funding should be available for the pay raises, he said, because Georgia residents pay a fee for 911 services on their phone bills that partially covers salaries.

Matzigkeit said he did not talk with the mayor before or after she issued her latest directive, but he was glad she ordered the pay study.

Baxter said the director of APD’s Communications division, Amanda Pritchett, has been making it known to City Hall officials that a salary adjustment is needed for the call center. The employees’ union has also been lobbying for the study, he said.

“There have been several folks that have been trying to advocate for this,” he said. “We’re grateful that the mayor recognized the need.”

Captain Jeff Baxter, assistant director of the call center, in the center's training room on Wednesday, Dec. 23. A 23-year veteran at APD, Baxter began his role with the call center in September. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

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