D.C. emergency dispatchers are warning that longer hours for them could mean life or death mistakes. Call takers and dispatchers claim they are already short-staffed and overworked, and now the 911 emergency system wants them to put in more time.
Thousands of emergency calls come into the district’s 911 call center every day, and the people who answer those calls and the dispatchers who get those calls to police and firefighters work 10-hour shifts, but they’re short-staffed, forcing the agency to spend millions on overtime. Adding to the problem is the lack of any new dispatchers or call takers being hired in years.
“Since 2009 we have not had any hiring of the dispatchers and call takers that we’ve lost,” said Jacqueline White, a senior dispatcher and union vice president.
The agency’s director proposed a fix.
“Instead of hiring additional staff as we requested, she’s forcing the emergency operations personnel to work 12-and-a-half-hour shifts,” said Lee Blackmon, union president.
That has the rank-and-file concerned about fatigue and getting the right information to first-responders and the right help to citizens.
The changes will ease the work load and make the city safer, officials argue.
“We are doing that,” said Wanda Gattison, of the Office of Unified Communications. “It’s a best practice that is utilized in many of our neighboring jurisdictions, including Fairfax County, Prince George’s County, Montgomery County.”
“Those counties, our surrounding jurisdictions, do not even a 10th of the work that we do,” Blackmon said.
Last year, the News4 I-Team uncovered problems at Montgomery County’s 911 call center, where a fatigued employee fell asleep on the job.
“We do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Gattison said. “We offer monthly wellness activities. This building is state-of-the-art. We’ve got a 24-hour gym. We’ve got a fully staffed kitchen.”
The employees at the call center aren’t the only ones worried. The head of the police union wrote to the D.C. Council warning the agency “is failing to address persistent problems” and the shift changes “will exacerbate existing problems.”
“I would disagree with that,” Gattison said. “I think that when you look at our director, Jennifer Green, who comes from 29 years having served as commander with Metropolitan Police Department.”
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who over sees the agency, says he’s aware of the concerns and plans to take the issue up at a hearing next week.
The union said it will consider going to court to stop the longer hours.
The change doesn't take effect until June.
Follow Mark Segraves on Twitter at @SegravesNBC4