PHOENIX — The City of Phoenix is now investigating circumstances that led up to a 911 operator’s death.
Pamela Cooper died last Friday, after nearly a week on life support. Her family says she was recovering from COVID-19 and was hospitalized after working an overtime shift when wasn’t feeling well.
A city spokesperson said the following in an email Monday with 12 News:
"I can confirm that the City of Phoenix Human Resources Department is currently investigating this matter. It is our policy not to comment on active investigations. Therefore, we will not be making any further comments until the investigation is complete."
In the wake of Cooper's hospitalization, 12 News learned Phoenix 911 call centers are short-staffed. A city spokesperson says they're actively trying to hire for 56 full-time 911 operators.
Cooper's family says Pamela Cooper was required to work extra hours, despite feeling sick on her shift while recovering from COVID-19. Her husband says she felt worse the morning after her shift and had to call for an ambulance. She was rushed to Banner Baywood just hours after finishing her shift and put on life support until she passed away Friday.
"It’s tragic that employers have that much control over someone’s life," says Cooper's husband Joel. "Is it really worth it? It isn’t for me because now I don’t have a wife."
A few days before her death, news of Pamela's condition reached City Council.
"We need an independent investigation into our 911 call centers and accountability for mistakes made by our city and those who have made them," said Councilmember Betty Guardado in a council meeting on March 2.
"Pamela’s shift should have been 10 hours but because of the chronic understaffing, she was forced to stay for 15 hours."
Union stewards with AFSCME Local 2960 say dispatchers at this time are required to work 8 extra hours per week, sometimes more if people call out sick, due to staffing shortages.
Other dispatchers confirm mandated overtime is a new norm.
"I’m just sad about the way it’s been ran," says a longtime dispatcher who wanted to remain anonymous for fear she'd lose her job.
She says lately there’s been a culture of burnout and fear of repercussion if employees say no to working overtime.
"She was afraid to say no because she was afraid she’d be in trouble and afraid she’d be written up."
The City of Phoenix says if an employee tells a supervisor they’re sick, they should be sent home. Whether that happened in Pamela’s case is now under investigation.
The anonymous dispatcher says she's witnessed policies not being followed.
"They don’t follow policy and procedure for some stuff. It depends upon the supervisor and who’s working."
She also reiterates a problem 12 News first reported last week. Short staffing could mean some 911 calls are stuck on hold for several minutes.
"I honestly didn’t think it was going to be one of our own," this dispatcher says of Pamela's condition. "I thought it would be someone in the public that suffered because we weren’t able to answer the phone quick enough and give them the help they need."
When 12 News asked the City of Phoenix for data on recent hold times a spokesperson told us that Phoenix Police Dispatch Center answer 85% of 911 calls in less than 15 seconds and 89% of 911 calls in less than 20 seconds.
And it’s not always easy to recruit for an emotionally tough job that needs 24/7 staffing. The city spokesperson tells 12 News that starting salary for a dispatcher is increasing $3.10 starting March, 8, to try and bring in more candidates.
They're proposing a raise for higher-salaried employees that Phoenix City Council will review in April. The City says it takes almost a year to train new recruits before they're ready to assume duties of a 911 operator.
The union that represented Pamela Cooper is raising money for Cooper's family. They say she was supporting her husband and older mother.
You can also visit the family's GoFundMe page.