York County 911 Center reduces mandated overtime, purses lips as to how

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Just three months ago, the York County 911 Center was dangerously understaffed, according to some dispatchers, who said high turnover was leading to excessive mandated overtime, which in turn led to more departures.

York County officials denied or downplayed the issue, even as former workers and some first responders warned public safety was at risk because of overworked dispatchers.

The center has now turned a corner, both county officials and the dispatchers' union representative agree, with employment numbers increasing and overtime costs decreasing.

"We looked at how to run the center efficiently by volume and by what positions were really necessary," said 911 Director Jacqueline Brininger. "The mandates were our biggest heartburn."

The center's struggle to retain employees — and hire more — led to overtime mandates for years, with taxpayers ponying up millions to cover the hours.

But data dating back to 2012, obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request, suggest the recent changes are reining in the overtime costs.  

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For example, in November of this year, the taxpayers paid $110,700 to cover the overtime costs of those working on the dispatch floor.

That's a 52 percent decrease from last November, when taxpayers paid roughly $189,000.

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

No official report: Some changes at the center began in May, when the county and 911 center management received recommendations from an audit conducted by Business Information Group to analyze the center's operational needs.

The audit began in September 2017 and took longer than expected, and county spokesman Mark Walters said BIG made "informal suggestions" but won't be releasing an official report.

BIG didn't respond to several phone call inquiries made over a two-month span.

Walters added that suggestions were submitted in written form to the county, and some were implemented, such as consolidating the two deputy director positions by letting two employees go and hiring former Lower Windsor Township Police Chief Tim Caldwell.

The York Dispatch has filed a Right-to-Know Law request seeking any documentation or records of other suggestions made by BIG.

Brininger said the overtime adjustments were made after analyzing call volume, looking at other counties and consulting with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

PEMA didn't respond to phone call and email inquiries for comment.

How did they do it? While touting the progress, Brininger refused to identify what specific actions were taken as a result of the evaluation to reduce mandated overtime.

Walters hypothetically compared the process to a construction company managing its workers.

"Let's say you find that we could get 10 people to be able to be as productive and get as much work done as we've been expecting of these 15," Walters said. "So let's only schedule 10."

However, Brininger denied the center ever reduced the number of dispatchers scheduled to work the floor at one time, and she wouldn't elaborate on any other actions that might have been taken.

Walters said none of BIG's suggestions included adjusting the number of employees scheduled on the floor.

Not on the same page: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents the dispatchers, said what the officials are saying doesn't match up.

Steve Mullen, president of the local AFSCME chapter, said from what he understands from conversations with dispatchers and management, the number of employees deemed necessary to run the floor was reduced.

As a result, workloads are larger for employees, who now handle the same amount of work that was done by a better-staffed floor, he said.

Mullen added the union never suggested the center reduce the number of employees on the floor, and current employees have told him they "may not be able to handle it if there is an influx of emergency calls."

Joanne Borgel worked at the York County 911 Center (formerly York County Control) for 30 years before retiring in 2000. Friends and co-workers say she's considered a local legend.

"There are still issues that we're dealing with, and it's far from perfect," he said. "But the mandatory overtime has seemingly been resolved."

Mullen added it was "surprising" how quickly the center's mandated overtime hours were cut after the changes were made, and he questioned why it wasn't done long ago. 

Brininger said like anything having to do with government and institutions, nothing changes "just by the swipe of a pen." 

President Commissioner Susan Byrnes said regardless of what actions were taken by the center's management, it's working.

"What's the big deal with that?" she said when pushed about decreasing the number of employees needed on the floor. "This is a management decision. This has been a process. We're seeing tremendous results."

The reduction in mandatory overtime comes on the heels of a new union contract that was signed in August.

Employees in several departments, including the 911 center, received pay raises.

The center's workers' starting salary was raised from $12.50 an hour to $14.50 an hour, and workers now receive double pay if they're 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, Mullen said.

But with each step of progress, he still remains hesitant.

Hesitant, but satisfied: "I'd classify the move as tentative good news," Mullen said. "I still have some reservations about what was done and how it was done, but the bottom line is that we were losing people left and right, and that has seemed to stop all together."

The reduction of mandated overtime seems to also correlate with the improvement Mullen's seen in employee retention, according to historic staffing data obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request.

Employment on the dispatch floor peaked in 2015, the same year Brininger took her director position after working as a lead supervisor at the center.

By 2016, employment plunged by 30 percent, which she attributed to eight individuals being taken off the floor and being put into management positions.

Excluding those promotions, there were 12 remaining who were lost in the one-year span who couldn't be replaced, which is still the largest dip in employment since at least 2008. 

Employment increases: In February, the center hit a 10-year low of 47 employees.

But as of Thursday, Nov. 29, the center has 61 employees on the floor and expects four more to be approved by Monday, Dec. 10, Walters said.

The county has budgeted for 86 employees to work on the dispatch floor for years, and Brininger said the current number of dispatchers efficiently runs the floor without any issues.

But when asked whether or not the county would consider saving money by reducing the number of budgeted employees, Byrnes said, "That's irrelevant."

Brininger, who said she would like to focus on the progress being made in the center, cited other changes made to boost morale and run the center more efficiently. 

For example, the center has begun holding information sessions for those who would like to seek employment to educate them on what they should expect when working there. Twenty-seven individuals had been scheduled for the first session Monday, Dec. 3.

The center also has improved training techniques based on employee suggestions, such as implementing mentoring programs, Brininger said.

Additionally, management has begun sending out monthly newsletters honoring the employee of the month, giving "gold stars" to high-performing employees and planning events for dispatchers.

"Some little things go a long way," Brininger said. "We are listening to them, we hear them, and we're working diligently on improving things, because that's our main concern."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.