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New York 911 dispatchers sound alarm on chronic short-staffing

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New York 911 dispatchers sound alarm on chronic short-staffing
By Tim Cauley ·

On July 5, some residents in the New York borough of Queens called 911 as a truck caught fire and exploded on a busy street. But many callers couldn’t get through, instead getting a busy signal or voicemail. The New York Police Department (NYPD) would only say the 911 system “experienced a slight increase in calls on July 5,” adding that it’s working to fix the issue.

But members of AFSCME Local 1549 (District Council 37), which represents the city’s 911 dispatchers, said the situation highlights a serious problem at the city’s two command centers, which handle 911 calls for the entire city. Short staffing, poor working conditions and mismanagement are the cause for delays in answering 911 calls, not call volume, members say.

“The heroism of our first responders is on display every day. But the heroes you don’t see are the 911 operators that are there for us day and night, yet suffer under poor working conditions that go unseen and sometimes ignored. We must ensure that the command centers and dispatchers are given the support and resources needed so that response times are not inhibited. Currently, that is not the case,” the local told the Long Island news outlet licpost.

Gross understaffing has been an ongoing problem at the two command centers. Local 1549 members point out that the city’s 1,200 911 dispatchers handle over 10 million calls a year. Many of the dispatchers – predominantly women with families – are forced to work 16-hour days for five or six days straight, members say. Some operators being mandated to work overtime manage to get only two to three hours of sleep, while some even sleep in the command centers to squeeze in a couple extra hours of rest. 

Those filing complaints or requesting to be exempt from overtime – even under extenuating circumstances – are either being ignored or denied without explanation, members say.

Paula Garrett, one such member who had her request denied, explains, “I am a mother of two children, one who has autism. He has services that require my attention and presence. I put in a (request) explaining my circumstances and I was denied with no recourse. When I have overtime, I leave the building at 3 p.m., just to turn back around for an 11 p.m. (shift).”

In a job that requires alertness and quick, clear decision making, these workers are constantly fighting off exhaustion. The problem could be alleviated if the NYPD hires more help, members say.

“I fear that I may not perform my job duties to the best of my abilities on such little rest,” explains Nioka Tilus, a four-year command center employee. “When we are forced to work for such long hours, I have chronic migraines from staring at the computer for so long. On top of that, I’m exhausted, which is a recipe for disaster. How are we supposed to help the city when no one is helping us?”

Local 1549 members are pushing for improvements before the next big emergency. They look forward to meeting with NYPD management and are eager to discuss ways to improve recruitment and working conditions at the command centers.

Staffing woes aren’t unique to 911 dispatchers. All public service jobs are short-staffed in much of the country. That’s why AFSCME has launched the Staff the Front Lines initiative and is doing a bus tour across the country to draw attention to the staffing crisis in public services and persuade elected officials to step up the pace of recruitment and retention.

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