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911 Dispatchers’ Calls for Help Go Unanswered

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Michael Clayton, President, AFSCME Local 164. ABOVE: 911 dispatchers rally outside County-City Building in downtown South Bend. (Photos by Lisa Martin)
Michael Clayton, President, AFSCME Local 164. ABOVE: 911 dispatchers rally outside County-City Building in downtown South Bend. (Photos by Lisa Martin)

SOUTH BEND, Indiana – Understaffed and overworked, members of AFSCME Local 164 (Council 962) are calling attention to staff shortages at St. Joseph County’s consolidated 911 center and the effect on the Indiana community.

Roughly 10,000 emergency calls went unanswered last year, which is about 7 percent of the 911 calls made countywide in 2016. Dispatchers work hard to ensure they return all missed calls, but as Michael Clayton, president of Local 164, noted, “That’s just too much of a risk to take when you’re dealing in emergencies.”

The 911 Executive Board is deciding today whether more staff is needed and if so, how many. That decision must then go before individual city councils for approval. Local 164 held a rally in late August to raise awareness of the dispatcher shortages in advance of today’s crucial meeting.

Separate studies by the South Bend Office of Innovation and AFSCME show that 78 is the minimum number of dispatchers the county’s 911 facility needs. There are currently 64, and the shortfall is taking a toll on those workers. 

The dispatchers say they’re working 12 to 16 hours a day, sometimes without breaks, and days off are filled with the apprehension of being called in to work.

“These are not easy jobs,” Clayton said. “We have to be sharp and alert for our citizens when they call us for help in times of crisis. We’ve been asking for the past year-and-a-half for them to adequately staff the center and, so far, we feel it’s fallen on deaf ears.”