Amid 911 staffing shortage, York County eliminates 4 dispatcher positions
As a staffing shortage reaches a fever pitch within the York County 911 center, officials have eliminated four positions to try to reduce overtime mandates.
A position, in this case, refers to a certain assignment that a dispatcher would need to fill during a shift.
County spokesman Mark Walters said the positions were eliminated because staff kept calling off and they were never filled, but he would not release the specific roles of the eliminated positions, citing security concerns.
President Commissioner Susan Byrnes said the commissioners consulted with county 911 director Jacqueline Brininger on the decision, which they expect to improve efficiency and reduce mandated overtime.
At least half a dozen dispatchers have left the already-understaffed center since the beginning of March.
The county budgets for 86 total 911 employees and currently employs 41 active dispatcher/call-takers and seven more who are only signed off to work the switchboard, according to Walters.
Another dozen are scheduled to begin classroom training on Monday, April 23, and four will begin floor training in May, Walters added.
Safety concerns: The high number of vacancies has led to excessive mandated overtime for the employees remaining, and numerous recently departed dispatchers who have spoken with The York Dispatch have expressed fears about the safety of the public and emergency responders because of exhausted dispatchers.
One even warned that the issue "could get someone killed" if nothing changes.
Some emergency responders have shared those dispatchers' concerns.
York City Police Detective Jeremy Mayer, president of the White Rose Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police, said the dispatcher staffing shortage presents safety concerns for his members.
Several officers have mentioned instances where they’re reading information on the dispatch log that isn’t being relayed to them on the radio, he said.
“If we’re getting called to a domestic dispute and we read that the guy has a knife or gun, that may not be relayed to us,” Mayer said.
Mayer said he understands dispatchers are doing the best they can, but when they’re mandated up to 16-hour shifts, “how alert can they really be?”
The county recently allowed a York Dispatch reporter onto the 911 dispatch floor for observation, and dispatchers shared similar concerns.
Keith Lotier, in his seventh year as a dispatcher, said nothing really bad has happened because of the staffing shortage, but he’s worried it will, and he doesn’t want to be there, exhausted, when it does. A pair of his colleagues nodded in agreement as he spoke.
With fewer available call-takers, dispatchers are often forced to answer phone calls and listen to the radio at the same time.
Lotier seamlessly handled this double duty a few times with the York Dispatch reporter looking on, but he noted that it’s not a skill anyone has naturally; it must be learned.
Mandates: As far as mandated overtime, Lotier agreed that the hours have increased in recent years. It’s been hard on everyone, particularly dispatchers’ families, he said, pointing to a colleague who is a single mother of a 2-year-old girl.
Brininger, the 911 director, said dispatchers knew what they were getting into when they signed up for the job, but Lotier pointed out that their union contract stipulates the county is only allowed to mandate 12 hours of overtime per week, and they’re regularly mandating 16 overtime hours.
Lotier acknowledged that there’s a provision in the union contract allowing the county to mandate additional overtime when absolutely needed, which Brininger said is happening because many dispatchers call off.
Sabrina Temple, who served as a York County dispatcher for more than four years before quitting in February, said dispatchers would call off so often because the mandated overtime was preventing people from getting days off.
“People need a break,” she said.
'No empathy': Allison Knauer, who quit in October after more than 10 years as a county dispatcher, said she could deal with the excessive hours, to an extent, but the combination of the hours and a toxic relationship between employees and upper management left her physically and emotionally drained.
Knauer said she absolutely loved her job and wanted to stay there until retirement, but the management currently in place was probably the worst she’s dealt with during her decade at the center.
“They have no empathy, like we’re told to have with callers,” Knauer said, noting that she did love some of her supervisors.
Knauer acknowledged that some dispatchers do take advantage of paid time-off and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which leaves openings that management needs to assign.
The county hired Business Information Group in September to conduct an operational review of the 911 center in the wake of issues with the fire and EMS paging systems, and Brininger said that review is ongoing.
The York Dispatch has filed a Right-to-Know request for that contract and any recommendations BIG has made during its review, and the county filed for an extension that will make its response due in early May.
No quick fix: County officials have said the staffing issues they face are a problem at 911 centers everywhere — and indeed, a recent news article by The Herald Mail-Media indicates similar concerns in Washington County — but a York Dispatch investigation finds that York County is unique in the extent of its shortage.
The York Dispatch compiled employment numbers from more than a dozen other county 911 centers in Pennsylvania either near York or with a similar population size.
None came close to York County's current total of 26 openings, with Montgomery and Lehigh counties the only other counties reporting more than 10 openings.
In Montgomery County — where Temple now works as a dispatcher — they have 15 openings out of 126 total employment slots, according to their deputy director.
Lehigh County has 12 openings for 42 total slots, but their director, Laurie Bailey, pointed out that the county has allotted 16 additional dispatcher positions for the 911 center since the beginning of 2018. The center was fully staffed before that, she said.
Asked about this discrepancy, Byrnes pointed to the large number of dispatcher applications the county has received recently.
But a lengthy, intensive training process means the current dispatchers won't see much immediate relief, and large training classes don't necessarily mean a large influx of new dispatchers.
Lotier said he started training with a class of 20, but he's one of only three remaining, and one of those is now an administrator. He said he understands the county is trying to help, but there's no quick fix.
Asked about what the county is doing to address the issues that led the shortage, Byrnes said they need cooperation from dispatchers to encourage and teach the incoming recruits.
"We're going down the right path," she said.
— Reach David Weissman at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.