This is 911, please hold

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The contentious tax breaks given to tech companies in San Francisco are under fire once again, as emergency dispatchers protested crippling budget shortages yesterday (Wed/2) in front of the Department of Emergency Management.

With sweeping budget cuts across all public sectors over the past few years, everyone is clamoring for more money wherever they can get it. But these protesters, organized by SEIU Local 1021, made some pretty compelling arguments for being prioritized.

“When you call 911, there should be enough people working to pick up the phone,” said Ron Davis, who has been an emergency dispatcher in San Francisco for 13 years. “It’s upsetting when you or someone you love is in a life-threatening emergency and you’re put on hold for 30 seconds, 45 seconds, or even a minute and longer.”

The department receives, on average, nearly 3,000 phone calls per day, and the workers who spoke at the rally described long hours and inadequate coverage for the volume of calls that they receive. California law mandates that 90 percent of 911 calls be answered in ten seconds or less, but in San Francisco that number often drops to 60 percent or lower. Davis said that on particularly busy nights, such as New Year’s Eve, there can be up to 20 calls in the queue waiting for an available dispatcher.

“I don’t even go out on holidays,” Davis said. “I’m too afraid that if something happens to me or someone in my family, we won’t get through to 911.”

Protesters directed much of their frustration at the tech companies, especially those which received massive tax breaks as an incentive to remain in San Francisco. The estimated tax break for Twitter alone, estimated to be $56 million, is greater than the entire annual budget for the DEM.

The rally is a part of “Worker Wednesdays,” a series of events created by SEIU Local 1021 in response to Mayor Ed Lee’s Tech Tuesday meetings with local technology leaders. The goal is to draw Lee out to meet with and prioritize city workers. Since the mayor did not attend the rally himself, the protesters chanted and yelled at a seven-foot cardboard cutout of a smiling Lee.

The emergency dispatchers are just a part of the union’s contract negotiations with the city, as SEIU Local 1021 represents over 13,000 employees in San Francisco. Larry Bradshaw, vice president for the San Francisco region of the union, said that so far they had made no progress in their bargaining with city leaders. The contract is set to be written by May 2. After that, union members will decide whether or not they accept the terms.

Workers were willing to make sacrifices during the recession, Bradshaw said. But now that the economy has turned around, “we just want to recoup our losses and make up for lost ground.”

A concurrent meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee at City Hall brought up many of the same points. A report from the City Controller, Ben Rosenfield, confirmed that the economic growth in San Francisco has been among the fastest in the nation and that he expects the progress to continue.

Sup. London Breed specifically asked how emergency services play into this recent boom, and a representative from the Mayor’s Budget Office said that the DEM is currently working with the mayor’s office on a revised budget, which should be released later this month or early May.

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