by Lisa Tome
Cecil's Director of Emergency Services Richard Brooks said that the end is in sight for a group of overworked dispatchers who for months, have been working mandatory 18 hour shifts.
New recruits have been hired and have been training. They will be on the job and assigned to shifts starting October 16.
Current dispatchers, whose identities are not being revealed at their request to protect their positions, say that working mandatory overtime isn't a new issue.
"When I was there, it seemed to be an ongoing thing where we were mandated what seemed to be every other week to do an 18 hour shift. I remember working an 18 hour shift, my first shift, starting at midnight and working until 6 p.m. Then following it up at the end of rotation working 12 noon until 6 a.m. It seems it's more frequent now with mandated shifts," said Dispatcher A.
"I really feel it does take a toll on a dispatcher because you are jeopardizing people's health and lives working on little to no sleep," said Dispatcher A.
"I know that since May 2014 there have been six seasoned dispatchers that left the agency and not one single person was offered a counter offer. In the county's eyes, dispatchers are replaceable. At the rate the county is going with being short staffed and over worked, someone is going to get hurt in the field."
In fiscal year 2013, which was between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013, 18 people left their jobs in dispatch. Brooks said that of that number, eight found new jobs and seven had a life change or the reason was unknown for their departure.
Three were terminated. "It was just not the job for them," said Brooks.
In fiscal year 2014, which was between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014, seven people left their positions - two for new jobs, four were terminated, and one left for an unknown reason.
"A lot of people use this as a stepping stone. Cecil County is a small jurisdiction. They go to larger jurisdictions," said Brooks.
There are 40 positions in dispatch, comprised of four rotating crews. The minimum staffing is seven - "most of the time we meet that," said Brooks.
He said that two to three years ago, the leave schedule was modified so that each day a staffer can have off to use up their holiday, vacation, or personal days. He said that there are nine people assigned to each shift, with one slot available for leave and one slot available for training or other needs.
"Where it becomes dangerous is when people call in sick," said Brooks. For the past two years, there have been part time on-call staff.
He said if there is a shortage to fill the spot, the first step is a part time person. There are six to eight of those folks on the schedule.
The second step to fill the vacant seat is to find a volunteer from someone who is not scheduled.
The third step is mandatory overtime, four to six hours, meaning that someone has to work 16 or 18 hours.
"We have all but five employees who will take voluntary (overtime). The five will only take it under mandatory," said Brooks.
"People are tired, no question. But we have people who volunteer to work 18. In Queen Anne's County they work 24 hours per shift. I've had people request the 24 hour configuration."
He said that there are quality assurance checks monitored by camera.
When asked how all the overtime has impacted the budget, Brooks said he hasn't had to go to the county for more money due to overtime.
He said that the mandatory overtime will diminish on October 16 when the new staff comes on board. By the new year, he expects those people to be fully trained.
"Things are so bad that all of the new people the Dispatcher 1's (dispatchers trained in a single discipline) are being pushed through training. Not a good idea ... People are getting pushed through as fast as possible so they have bodies to fill positions. Whether those are capable bodies, they don't seem to care. But you will find a lot of us do care. I don't think I could handle someone getting hurt because I lacked in training. But regardless, it will fall back on us (the dispatcher) not the administration," said Dispatcher B.
"For me, an 18 is a true struggle. But I do believe that age also plays a part in that. When I first started, I was told you get a 30 minute break for lunch and two 15 minute breaks. In all the time I have been there, I have yet to see that. We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at our console. We usually get enough time to go to the bathroom and to the kitchen to grab food. Then you go back in so that either the person you are patched with on the police side isn't swamped, or so fire side isn't lacking personnel. I don't mind the 12 hour shift. It's the 12 that turns into the 18 that you have to turn around and come back in that it's hard. We've talked of struggling to stay awake on our ride home," said Dispatcher B. "A lot of us know that things need to change, especially with our administration. But we don't want to and can't afford to lose our jobs. We have families and people that rely on us."
Brooks said employees take breaks while working.
"They work an intense job. They take breaks. Sometimes they eat dinner at the console if it's busy. Or they sit outside at the picnic table," said Brooks. He also said he doesn't "micromanage" employee breaks.
During September 2014, there were 38 mandatory overtime shifts for staff. There are two 12 hour shifts per day in the call center.
"My shift, as well as one other shift, has gone through the entire mandatory list in one rotation. In other words, in four days, every person on the shift worked an 18," said Dispatcher D. "Officers, EMS, and firefighters depend, and even place their lives in the hands of the dispatchers. This is an issue of citizen safety, no one should be answering 911 for 18 hours. The 18 hour shifts have been for at least the last year, probably longer, due to being short staffed, we're coming up for mandatory quicker. I've been mandated 3-4 times in the past month. Sometimes it's for 16 (hours), depends on where you are in your rotation. It's getting to us all."
Minimum staffing is seven people - two call takers, two fire dispatchers, and three police dispatchers (town police, Cecil Sheriff's Office, and Elkton Police). One of those people is a supervisor. With less personnel, the supervisor is now working his or her own console, and unable to handle training also.
Dispatchers C and E stated that the ideal staffing is nine or 10 people. They confirmed that they eat at the dispatcher consoles for meals and don't take breaks away from their work.
They also said that for as many as four hours on some shifts, staffing levels fall below the required seven people.
"This time last year we were going through this same situation. It's been a constant strain on us for over a year. The mandatory shifts have been ongoing for over a year. There is nothing temporary about it," said Dispatcher E.
"If you're working an 18, you are up 21 or 22 hours. You don't have a choice. You go above and beyond and you get smacked. You are tired all the time. I get four hours of sleep everyday."
"Retention is no good and morale is terrible. Everyone is so stressed out. I have always wanted to be a dispatcher. This is my dream job. The money I make is good," said Dispatcher E. "We know what can happen. If I can't stay awake, someone dies or someone gets shot and it's my fault. They (police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel) become part of your family It's not a temporary problem. Director Brooks has to admit there is an issue. You never know when you are going to get mandatory. You can't make plans. People call out and they are getting away with it. People are abusing FMLA (Family Medical Leave)."
Dispatcher C will volunteer for mandatory overtime so others don't have to do it.
"There are some of us who volunteer for 18 hour shifts. People will volunteer. But if no one fills them, they are mandatory. (Working 18 hours) physically and mentally exhausts you. Sometimes I sleep the (next) day away. We're all tired. We're frustrated. Some people are hired and they leave because they can't cut it. It's money, it's benefits and morale is poor. This is my calling. It's what I've always wanted to do. I love it. It's just everything else. I'm their lifeline. If I miss that 911 call and someone dies, it's my fault. We genuinely care about the first responders," said Dispatcher C.
Dispatcher C read a magazine article about the cognitive abilities of those who work long shifts. The article said that those who work 18 hours have the same abilities as a drunk driver. "You can't drive under the influence, but you can dispatch."
County council president Robert Hodge said that the staffing at Cecil's Department of Emergency Services falls under the supervision of County Executive Tari Moore. "I know there has been a good bit of turnover," said Hodge.
He said he is aware that people have been working the 18 hour shifts due to the department being short-handed, a lot of accrued leave, and the turnover.
"When people call 911, somebody has to answer that phone," said Hodge.
"In my mind, 12 hours is too long. I'm not sure people's minds are sharp at the tenth hour. How mentally alert can you be on your 11th hour? But we the council, don't set that policy.
"I do know that it's continuing and constant. We are always rehiring new people. Whether it's the work environment, pay scale, this is an issue that needs to be managed," said Hodge.
County Executive Tari Moore has also looked at the issue.
"There have been a total of 29 people who have resigned in the last two plus years, nine in fiscal year 13, 16 in fiscal year 14, and four so far in fiscal year 2015. Twelve hour shifts are the norm, but occasionally employees are asked to work longer if another employee calls in sick or is assigned to training, so that we can still adequately respond to our community's emergency calls. The policy is that a voluntary request goes out first, and then part-time employees can be asked to fill in. The last resort is to make 18-hour shifts mandatory, but sometimes is required if shifts can't be covered any other way," said Moore.