EDITORIAL: Address staffing issues at county’s 911 center

York Dispatch

Persistent staffing shortages at the county’s 911 center are not just an employment issue, they’re a public-safety issue — and they need to be rectified.

As the Dispatch’s David Weissman reported over the weekend, the 911 center is operating with barely half of its 86 positions filled. That means workers are often called upon to staff the phones for shifts of up to 12 hours — sometimes with little or no advance warning.

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

This is a recipe for trouble.

The county’s 911 dispatchers are the first line of response in situations where minutes can mean lives. The job, requiring  that information be gathered under often-difficult emergency circumstances, is stressful enough. The increased pressures of chronic staff shortages and overtime-induced fatigue make matters even worse.

Yes, there is some help in the pipeline: Six new dispatchers are scheduled to come online this month, and 10 more are in training. But the paltry salary (starting pay is $12.50 an hour) and grueling demands of the job make ongoing churn within the department a pronounced likelihood.

And that continual turnover creates an understandable learning curve that hasn’t gone unnoticed by those in the field. Union Fire Co. Chief Joseph Stevens, for example, told Weissman newer employees aren’t always able to get fire personnel the resources they need as quickly as the experienced employees they replace.

Again, minutes matter.

So do dollars. Running the center without adequate resources isn’t just chewing up workers and potentially endangering public safety, it’s costing taxpayers. York County has paid more than $2.7 million in overtime costs at the 911 Center since 2016, according to a recent analysis.

More:Commissioners order audit of York County 911 center

For all these reasons, the county and union that represents the dispatchers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, need to redouble their efforts to close the staffing gap.

Last-minute, county-mandated overtime is obviously not the answer, leading as it has to overworked dispatchers and a union threat to file a grievance. Having supervisors and managers jump into the breech is a commendable roll-up-your-sleeves response, but far from a permanent solution.

And workable, permanent solutions are what’s needed.

The second-shift training schedule the county is implementing, at the request of the union, might be one answer. Formally switching from 8-hour to 12-hour shifts — as has been successfully instituted elsewhere — could be another.

More:Rising overtime costs at York County Prison lead to staff reorganization

Clearly, a robust retention strategy needs to be developed. A more attractive salary scale, for instance, might be more cost-effective than the ongoing costs of overtime, coupled with continually advertising for and training a steady stream of new hires.

Whatever the answers, union and county leaders need to work quickly to find them. The important, sometimes life-saving work of the 911 center needs to be performed by a team of dispatchers who are appropriately experienced, trained and supported.