Departing dispatchers: York County 911 situation worsens, 'could get someone killed'

David Weissman
York Dispatch
An employee talks with a co-worker at the York County 911 Center Monday, July 31, 2017. County spokesman Mark Walters and lead training supervisor Roxie Tate talked with the media Monday, Feb. 26 regarding recent problems with the center's paging system. Bill Kalina photo

At least five dispatchers have left the already understaffed York County 911 Center within the past month, and one of the recently departed employees warned that the issue "could get someone killed" if nothing changes.

The York Dispatch reported in late February that the center was operating with 47 employees, a little more than half of the 86 available positions, per the budget.

Ashley Williams, of Dover Township, and Brandee Oliver, of Spring Grove, say they are two of five now-former dispatchers who have left their jobs since that report.

Both pointed to excessive mandated overtime and a toxic relationship between dispatchers and management as reasons for their departures.

Williams, who left after 2½ years at York County 911, said she worked 46 hours of overtime in her last week, and she just got tired of not ever being able to see her 3-year-old son.

She described the current cycle inside the center: Excessive overtime is leading to exhausted employees making mistakes or refusing more overtime, which leads to management suspending or firing employees, which leads to fewer dispatchers available to cover shifts, which leads to more mandated overtime.

Oliver, who left after 1½ years on the job, said dispatchers have been making serious mistakes as a result of exhaustion, including transposing addresses incorrectly and forgetting to relay important information to emergency responders.

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Union Fire Co. Chief Joseph Stevens has said he does notice the high turnover rate among dispatchers as newer employees don't always get fire personnel the resources they need as quickly as the longtime employees who have left.

Oliver also said dispatchers have been using more playback, which is when a dispatcher doesn't catch something said on a radio transmission and has to replay the message.

"I would play something back four times without registering it sometimes because I was just so tired," she said.

Also, while someone at the center will always answer an incoming 911 call, Oliver and Williams said there have been times when the employees answering calls are the ones who are supposed to be listening to incoming radio signals.

"That could get someone killed," Williams said.

Williams now works as a 911 dispatcher in Cumberland County, which she said is almost fully staffed.

She said many of her former colleagues in York County who she still talks to are actively looking for other jobs, and she wants management to see that there's a serious problem.

County response: County spokesman Mark Walters has previously noted that employee retainment has been an issue at the 911 center for years, though it has become even more of an issue recently.

Supervisors and administrators often are forced to take shifts answering phones to fill scheduling holes, he said.

In February, he said 16 people were either in training or about to begin training.

The center has received an influx of applicants, according to Walters, with at least 50 applications during the first week of March.

"We had to create a whole new training session for incoming trainees," Walters wrote in a statement.

He added that some former employees have expressed an interest in working part-time.

County spokesman Mark Walters, right, and York County 911 Center Lead Training Supervisor Roxie Tate talk with the media Monday, July 31, 2017, regarding recent problems with the center's paging system. Bill Kalina photo

In an effort to reduce turnover, Walters said, the county is implementing a second-shift training schedule, at the request of the union and its members.

The county also has considered switching from 8-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, as has been implemented successfully in other county 911 centers, but no agreement has been met on that front, according to Walters.

The county's 911 director, Jacqueline Brininger, was not immediately available to respond to requests for comment with county offices closed Friday, March 30.

Wanted to stay: Williams and Oliver both said they wanted to stay at York County 911 because they loved their jobs, but they saw the issues getting progressively worse.

Before leaving, both requested to move to part-time positions but were denied, they said.

Oliver emphasized that her departure was not related to salary, though the dispatchers' union has publicly stated low pay is a factor in the county's inability to retain employees.

Steve Mullen, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees district representing the 911 dispatchers, could not immediately be reached.

Williams said her base pay in Cumberland County is higher, but she's earning significantly less because she doesn't work as much overtime.

— Correction: The first name of one of the former dispatchers has been corrected to Brandee.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.