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Phoenix 911 operator hospitalization reveals staffing shortage problems at Phoenix Police Dispatch Center

Union stewards say that dispatchers right now are required to work 8 hours overtime per week, sometimes more if people call out sick.

PHOENIX — A Phoenix 911 dispatcher’s dire situation is raising a lot of questions about her workplace.  

Pamela Cooper, a 21-year-veteran with Phoenix 911, is now on life support after her family says she was pressured into working overtime. She went back to work last after battling COVID-19 and lingering symptoms earlier this year. 

She started to feel sick Friday and when her family says she asked to leave, she was mandated to work six extra hours on top of her normal 10-hour shift.

"It was mandatory," said her husband Joel. "If she didn’t stay, she’d be written up."

Joel says she felt so bad the next morning that they called for an ambulance. She was rushed to Banner Baywood, where she's still on life support.

"It’s only been a few days so we don’t want to pull the plug too early," he said. "We want to give her a chance to fight."

Pam's colleagues, Wilechia Burns and Marie Katzenberger, spoke with 12 News as stewards for Local 2960 AFSCME, a union that represents Phoenix dispatchers.

"We know she was not feeling well and we know she was mandated to stay," Katzenberger explains.

"We can’t keep doing this," added Burns.

They're talking about mandatory overtime work. They explain that right now all dispatchers have to work a minimum of 8 hours extra per week due to staffing shortages, usually more if people call out sick.

"Sometimes it’s 25 to 30 positions a day," Katzenberger tells.

And in most cases, dispatchers can’t say no. It’s part of the job. Burns and Katzenberger say each dispatcher gets one chance to turn down the extra hours, but otherwise they typically have to stay.

In an email, a spokesperson for the city of Phoenix told 12 News that if someone is sick and tells a supervisor, they should be sent home.

RELATED: Phoenix 911 dispatcher hospitalized after overtime shift; union says dispatchers are 'burned out'

The spokesperson says COVID-19 cases are tracked by department instead of job titles. He says the most recent numbers show 539 sworn and 232 civilian police department employees have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic. 

"We’re trying to regroup and do this all again without proper rest in between and it’s hard," Burns shares. "It’s very hard."

The city is actively trying to hire for 56 open dispatcher positions. Full staff would be 344 dispatchers, so they're currently down about a sixth of their staff. Part-time positions are not an option.

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 next week to try and bring in more candidates.

They're proposing a raise for higher-salaried employees that Phoenix City Council will review in April.

"We want to be 100%," Burns says. "We want to do this job because people’s lives depend on it."

The short-staffing and burn out have a ripple effect.  

"The call times are holding,"Katzenberger explains.

She says sometimes 911 calls will go unanswered for several minutes because there aren't enough people to answer them quickly enough.

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.

"We’ve had issues with staffing, issues with morale before COVID hit," Burns says. "COVID just ripped the bandaid off and exposed it for what it is."

"We need to hire more people," Katzenberger adds. "We need to reallocate positions that have a big gap."

If you want to help Pamela Cooper's family, you can head to her family's GoFundMe page.

Watch more details of her story below: