ANTIOCH -- With this crime-plagued city still struggling to boost its police force to past staffing levels, it's people like Jennifer Lee who must manage the chaos to keep residents safe.
Lee, a nine-year public safety dispatcher in Antioch, was taking a call from an alarm company on a recent night when the light on one of the Antioch police's 911 phone lines lit up.
On the other end, a frazzled resident described a possible assault inside a car.
Calmly but firmly, the veteran dispatcher asked the caller a series of questions: Did you see what he was wearing? Did you see what she was wearing? Where are they now? Are they still in the parking lot?
Typing in shorthand notes, Lee got the details and relayed them electronically to colleague Pamela McDonald.
"OK, I'll let the officers know," Lee said.
Without missing a beat, Lee had already gone back to getting the address for the on-hold false alarm call, while McDonald radioed the call to officers on the streets.
It all happened in 20 seconds -- part of the fast-paced routine for public safety dispatchers, who during a typical shift can deal with everything from homicide reports to traffic lights going out to excessive noise late at night.
"What happens in here I think would best be described as controlled chaos," Lee said.
The dispatch department oversees both Antioch and Brentwood police agencies, which total about 160,000 residents. But unlike similar-size cities such as Richmond and Concord that operate their own dispatch, the job has become increasingly more demanding in Antioch.
The number of sworn officers in the city has dropped from 126 before the economic downturn to its current level of 88, while the number of calls for service that the dispatchers handle for the growing communities continue to climb.
An average of 1,557 calls for services per week were recorded in the past month -- and that's from Antioch alone. A five-week stretch in 2011 averaged 1,399 Antioch service calls.
"As soon as we walk in the door, we hit the ground running. It's nonstop," McDonald said. The dispatchers work 12-hour shifts that can grow to 16 hours if they're needed to cover for others.
Antioch had four dispatchers working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. before the recession. Now it has three on that shift. Meanwhile, reported crimes in the city jumped from 3,550 in 2008 to a peak of 5,825 in 2012, before dipping to 5,386 last year.
The challenge is often differentiating trivial calls from high-priority ones that can mean the difference between life and death.
One thing that slows down dispatchers is the 911 process itself. About 75 percent of the calls they receive are pocket dials, toddlers calling on disconnected cellphones their parents have them play with, or issues that aren't necessarily urgent.
"The rest are really more legitimate emergencies. It can be frustrating because it's like 'I put someone else on hold for that?'" Lee said.
At 8:42 on a recent night, 13 calls were waiting for service. A half-hour later, 20 calls awaited response. The longest call, for a stolen iPad, had come in 184 minutes earlier.
"It's made their juggling act a little bit bigger, in that they have to continually assess which calls to send officers to first," police Capt. Tammany Brooks said. "They have to be on top of their game.
"They really are kind of that glue, that cohesion, that keeps everything together."
Despite the continuing police staffing shortage, the average time it has taken officers to get to a call this year is 10 minutes and 40 seconds; in 2012, it was 11:04.
Dispatchers use GPS technology to oversee where all of the officers in the two cities are located. When there is a serious crime, Lee said she'll look at which officers are located closest to the scene.
Sometimes, dispatchers are able to resolve situations that would have taken officers, especially in Antioch, several hours to get to.
A call came in that a 3-year-old child was sitting in the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente. A few minutes later, someone from a Brentwood pizza parlor called about a missing child.
"It's too coincidental," Lee said.
Dispatchers are also able to run license plates to see whether cars are stolen, create arrest warrants for officers and help find information for electronic reports, allowing officers to focus on reacting more quickly to crimes in progress.
"It's definitely a necessity, because we're busy trying to drive to where we need to go," Cpl. William Dee said.
Dee told the dispatchers about a case he had handled that night that started as a call for a person lying lifeless in a van.
When police arrived and investigated, they found that it was two men who were passed out in the vehicle, Dee said. The van was stolen, and methamphetamine was found inside.
"It can be like reading a mystery novel, but the last two to three chapters are gone," said Lee, noting how it is interesting to find out from officers what actually transpired.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.