York County dispatchers: New contract won't solve 911 center woes

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

A new contract for York County 911 Center employees is awaiting county commissioners’ approval, but dispatchers and the union representing them doubt changes in the agreement will fix what they say are deep-rooted problems.

Past and present dispatchers and their union representative said the contract, although containing pay raises for 911 center workers, fails to address the underlying reason for historical staffing and morale issues.

That reason, they claim, is the center's management.

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

The high number of vacancies has led to excessive mandated overtime for the remaining employees, and numerous former dispatchers as well as some emergency responders have said they fear the safety of the public and emergency responders could be at risk because of exhausted dispatchers.

Steve Mullen, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees district representing the 911 dispatchers, has said those who refused mandated overtime have been suspended or fired, leaving more open shifts, which require more mandated overtime.

He likened the situation to "a circular firing squad."

County officials have said they are working to fill the open positions, but it takes time to hire and train new employees.

In the meantime, current and former 911 center employees say, workers continue to burn out under the excessive mandated overtime and either quit or are fired.

Since January, 25 dispatchers have quit and nine have been fired, according to statistics provided by county spokesman Mark Walters.

As of August, the center has 52 of the 86 budgeted positions filled, he said.

A plan? The blame for staffing and morale issues at the 911 center is "100 percent on the county," Mullen said recently.

"We continue to talk with management at least on a monthly basis to keep on them to see what they're doing about the staffing issues, but quite frankly, I don't think they have a plan," he said.

The next step for the county, Mullen said, should be for the commissioners to take a deeper dive into problems with management.

"I think the commissioners really need to take a long look at the management there and decide whether or not they're being effective," he said. "Because in our view, they're not."

Last September, the county hired Business Information Group to conduct an operational review of the 911 center, looking at operations, staff, budget and communications to find areas for improvement.

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

County administrator Mark Derr, who has served as the county's point of contact with the consultant, said in May that officials had expected the review to be completed by then, but he had no idea when it would be done.

Walters said recently the review is ongoing.

More:Officials: York County 911 Center little more than half staffed

A decade of staffing levels: Multiple attempts over a month to interview 911 center Director Jacqueline Brininger and President Commissioner Susan Byrnes about the staffing and morale issues were unsuccessful. An interview with Brininger scheduled for Aug. 16 was canceled the night before.

"(Brininger) is interested in talking about the positive elements of 911 and has no desire to discuss personal attacks lobbed at her by former employees and anonymous sources," Walters said.

The spokesman said Brininger and the county commissioners would be willing to talk about the 911 center issues after the new contract is approved.

During a meeting with The York Dispatch editorial board in May, Brininger, 911 center assistant director Tim Caldwell and Byrnes said issues at the center are exaggerated and staffing fluctuations are normal.

However, staffing records dating back to 2008, later obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request, show a significant drop in 911 center staffing in 2016.

The documents do show a fluctuation in staffing for most years — for instance, staffing increased from 54 to 63 from 2008 to 2009 and dropped from 66 to 60 from 2012 to 2013.

But in 2016, staffing at the center dropped from 70 employees to 50 — a nearly 30 percent decrease. And the numbers have hovered in that range ever since.

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

Brininger was promoted to 911 center director in April 2015, replacing Julio Mendez. She joined the center in 1999 as a dispatcher, was promoted in 2004 to shift supervisor and was promoted again in 2009 to lead shift supervisor.

New contract: The county commissioners are expected to vote on a new contract for 911 center workers at their Wednesday, Aug. 29, meeting, Walters said.

Mullen said the biggest changes are a pay raise for 911 workers' starting salary — from $12.50 an hour to $14.50 an hour — and an increase from time and half to double pay for employees mandated to work more than 12 hours.

However, language in the contract that allows workers to be mandated to work beyond 12 hours — and is "constantly used" — remains in the contract, he said.

As a result, Mullen said he expects that grievances filed by dispatchers related to employees being disciplined for refusing mandated overtime and complaints about management will be taken to arbitration.

Recent departures: One of the most recent departures was Keith Lotier, a seven-year veteran of the center who was fired after refusing mandated overtime shifts because of plans he had made with his family six months earlier. 

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, Lotier had a discipline hearing and was asked to sign a "last-chance agreement" that would allow the center to fire him if he refused any more mandated overtime or came in to work late, he said. 

Lotier said he refused to sign, and the job that he "loved" ended with a termination.

"I'm not sure why the staffing issues are so hard for (management) to understand," he said. "Dispatchers are leaving in droves because of the overtime and the way we're being treated."

The pay raise in the pending contract, Lotier added, is only a small part of an issue that can only be solved if management makes significant changes or is replaced.

'It took a toll': Carol Lage said she worked at the center for two years before quitting for health reasons.

In August 2017, she said, she was written up after missing work because her appendix burst at the 911 center. Lage said was transported by ambulance to a hospital after she lost consciousness in the center’s bathroom.

"We were working massive amounts of overtime, and it took a toll on my health," she said. "There was no empathy at all. They don't care if you have a life or if you have a family; they don't care what's going on in your personal life."

More:Ongoing audit of York County 911 center taking longer than expected

Lage said she also had a heart attack in December 2017 and was off work, on her doctor’s orders, until March 2018. The day she returned, she said, she worked an eight-hour shift and was mandated to stay for another four.

Lage said she quit in July before management could fire her, which she "knew was coming."

Allison Knauer, who worked at the center for more than 10 years before quitting last October, said a lack of empathy from management is an issue. 

"Dispatchers need to have someone who shows appreciation to them, especially those that take the mandates without complaints and show up on a regular basis," she said. "Currently, dispatchers have management that belittles them and throws them under the bus, which just isn't healthy for anyone."

Seven current 911 center dispatchers declined to go on the record for fear of reprisals, but all said they are regularly required to work 16-hour days and have yet to see management address staffing and morale issues.

Beyond the center: The dispatchers’ discontent has spread beyond the center to the first responder community.

"A big majority of the problem seems to be upper management," said Stewartstown Fire Chief Ira Walker. "You've got all these people leaving — what's going on? Something just ain't right. But no one seems to care."

Walker said his department hasn't felt the effects of the understaffed center, but he remains worried.

Fire Chief Ira Walker reads the Fireman's Prayer during the Remembrance for Fallen York County Firefighters/Emergency Service Personnel Who have Died in the Line of Duty at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North York, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"The dispatchers are overworked and exhausted," he said. "We're going to wait until something major happens instead of being proactive? ... We're just hoping that something doesn't happen."

York City Police Detective Jeremy Mayer, president of the White Rose Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police, said in April that the staffing issues present safety concerns for police as well.

In a follow-up interview, Mayer said "he had nothing to add" as nothing has changed regarding the concerns for the safety of police officers — for the worse or for the better.