Emergency 911 call on smartphone, mobile phone, close up
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The Allegheny County 911 Center is facing “critical staffing issues” caused by long-term hiring problems and the COVID-19 surge that currently has more than 40 dispatchers out of service, union representatives say.

Rick Grejda, a business agent for the union that represents the dispatchers, SEIU Local 668, said the center has typically operated 10 to 15 workers below the normal level of 51 during the last month. The center now employs 211 dispatchers, well below the budgeted level of 259 dispatchers. 

The center handles 911 calls and dispatches police, fire and paramedic service throughout Allegheny County. 

“Workers are exhausted from working the mandatory overtime and working with less staff to do the same amount of work,” Grejda said.

Dispatchers were made to work mandatory overtime on top of their regular eight-hour shifts until last month, union members said, when management compelled them to work 12-hour shifts instead. 

Chief Matt Brown of Allegheny County Emergency Services said in a statement provided by the county that alternative schedules have “minimized” the staffing challenges.

“Our 9-1-1 staffing fluctuates day to day related to similar date call history, planned events and potential weather impacts that can increase call volume,” according to Brown’s statement. “The operations also allow for increased call taker capability almost instantly by directing calls to radio desks not actively managing incident communications. This is always a function of operating the center.” 

Grejda said the number of dispatchers out with COVID increased by 10 in the last five days, and the number continues to climb even as dispatchers return to service. He said during the weekend of Jan. 8, “there was half the minimal number of 911 call takers required to staff” the center. Brown pointed out in his statement that COVID impacts on staff are not unique to the county’s 911 center. “Similar and worse impacts to other 9-1-1 operations across the Commonwealth and the nation exist as well,” he said.

When shifts are short staff, the center starts to consolidate “desks,” which are units that handle calls for sections of the county — north, south, east, west and the city of Pittsburgh.Consolidating desks means more calls flow to each call taker and dispatcher, increasing the likelihood of a caller having to wait for service.

“Every second in an emergency counts,” Grejda said. “If callers are receiving an automated recording telling them that all lines are busy, it is important that they stay on the line until a 911 call taker can answer.”

If a caller hangs up and calls back, they go to the bottom of the queue.

As the number of available dispatchers decreases, the need for 911 services may be going up. The call volume in December was higher than the previous two years, Grejda said; specific numbers were not available.

Brown said high call volume is a challenge to the 911 center even when fully staffed. “Our professional staff, at all levels, continually plan and implement to not fail at every level of our operation,” he said. “We monitor call handling times using several real time systems that warn us of calls delayed by quantity and length of delay.”

April Heinze, operations director at the National Emergency Number Association, said even before the pandemic, 911 centers nationwide had been running 15% to 20% below full staffing levels. She said it’s hard to maintain staff because of the extensive hiring and training process. She also said government agencies can have a harder time attracting workers because of restrictions on hiring incentives and salaries.

Grejda said five candidates were scheduled to take a new hire examination Tuesday morning, but none showed up. “We are losing workers to employers who are paying more or who offer the opportunity to work from home,” Grejda said.

He said the center has 22 new hires that are slated to begin training in February, but they won’t be ready to be on the job until Memorial Day.

Heinze said the first line of defense against deficient staffing is instituting mandatory overtime to make sure duties are covered — something Allegheny County has done.

She said this can have drawbacks, though. “The ability to process calls efficiently and effectively can be diminished,” she said. “It’s a loop of constant stress on employees.”

The staffing issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they existed before COVID. In 2019, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that dispatchers were given mandatory double shifts — 16-hour days — more than 20 times per year due to low staffing levels.

“Management is aware of the need to recruit more staff, however it takes months to train a new hire,” Grejda said. “Without safe staffing at the Allegheny County 911 Center, we may be facing a public safety crisis.”

Union spokesmen for Pittsburgh firefighters and Pittsburgh paramedics said they have not noticed any issues at their end of the dispatching system, though they could not speak about conditions outside the city.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...