EDITORIAL: 911 center woes keep snowballing

York Dispatch

An extra two days of work every week.

That's what employees at the York County 911 center are working right now, with 16 hours of mandated overtime.

And even with those mandated extra hours of work, there were so many position assignments being unfilled during some shifts that officials recently eliminated four positions.

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

Workers at these high-stress jobs are being stretched so thin that they are calling off just to get a day off, creating a snowball effect that means more overtime for everyone. At least six employees have quit since the beginning of March.

Right now, there are 48 employees working at the York County 911 center, even though the county budgets for 86 employees. More are beginning training classes, but there are still 26 openings at the center.

Cutting back on the number of people lined up each day to do this crucial work seems like a backward way of managing the situation.

More:Amid 911 staffing shortage, York County eliminates 4 dispatcher positions

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

More:EDITORIAL: Address staffing issues at county’s 911 center

Those workers who are answering 911 calls and sending first responders to emergency situations are pulling impossibly heavy loads, often using learned skills to handle two vital jobs at once. 

Keith Lotier, in his seventh year as a dispatcher, often does just that, answering phone calls while listening to radio responses from emergency crews.

He told York Dispatch reporter David Weissman he's worried something really bad will happen because of the staffing shortage, and he doesn't want to be there, exhausted, when it does. A pair of his colleagues nodded in agreement as he spoke.

First responders are worried too. York City Police Detective Jeremy Mayer, president of the White Rose Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police, said several officers have told him they are seeing information on the dispatch log that they're not being told over the radio.

“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 being forced to pull up to 16-hour shifts, “How alert can they really be?”

The York County Commissioners approved a five-year contract Wednesday worth more than $2.1 million for maintenance of the county's emergency management systems, including the 911 call center. Friday, July 22, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Center director Jacqueline Brininger says 911 employees knew what they were doing when they took the job. She blames the increasing amounts of overtime on the number of dispatchers who call off.

Employees who have left say there's a toxic relationship between the dispatchers and upper management. On social media, people who express interest in the open jobs at the center are urged not to consider them, especially if they have families.

While many 911 centers are seeing staffing shortages, Weissman compiled numbers from more than a dozen similar Pennsylvania counties, and none came close to York's current total of 26 openings. 

Business Information Group (BIG) has been working on an operational review of the center since September, and we hope that review will shed some light on what the county needs to do to improve conditions at the 911 center. 

We understand that these are not jobs that can be filled quickly. People have to be vetted and hired, training has to take place. No one can walk in off the street and immediately start answering the phones. And we see that there are people who are beginning training now, and that more are lined up.

But in the meantime, York County citizens could be in danger.

It's time for the commissioners to take a hard look at the management at the center, then do what it takes to fix the multitude of problems that have grown there over the years.

Until that happens, we will continue to see more employees leaving than the county can hire, and we will continue to see potential employees being urged not to apply for the open positions. 

The combination of a 911 center operating with only 56 percent of its budgeted staff actually in a position to do the work and mandatory overtime that leaves those remaining employees exhausted could lead to tragedy. It's the duty of the commissioners to do what is necessary before that happens.