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Erie County’s 911 call takers: Grueling shifts put lives ‘in serious jeopardy’

Julianne Astyk takes all kinds of phone calls – shootings, stabbings, domestic violence. Sometimes, children call with emergencies. Adults call after discovering a hanging body.

There are even calls when Astyk only hears screams.

A “simple” phone call can also be emotionally stressful, Astyk said.

“Like a kid doesn’t get off the school bus and the mother’s frantic because where is her kid?” she said.

For Astyk and 25 other call takers and dispatchers in the Erie County Central Police Services 911 Division, keeping cool under pressure can make the difference between life and death.

But the employees worry their emergency skills are at risk because of an “antiquated” scheduling system that forces most of them to work full-time shifts seven to eight days in a row. Some employees work up to 16 hours a day, handling a barrage of phone calls.

Fed up, they want a better schedule.

“You want to be professional. You want to be kind,” Astyk said. “You want to get the facts and do your best. But mentally, you’re exhausted.”

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In a letter to the County Legislature, 20 employees asked for changes to a schedule they called dangerous.

Among their demands: a vote on a 12-hour shift schedule.

They contend such a schedule would give employees more stability and more days off between shifts so no employee would have to work more than three days in a row.

“Our job is extremely stressful and demands 100 percent of our attention at all times,” they said in their letter last week. “If we make a mistake, lives could be lost or put in serious jeopardy, and we are held accountable. The current schedule takes a toll on us physically, mentally and emotionally, making us a liability to the county.”

County response

County administrators acknowledge the schedules have been a serious issue this year, with employee vacancies and health problems resulting in more mandatory and voluntary overtime.

Employees regularly work eight-hour days for seven to eight days in a row. But over the past few months, employees have worked several 16-hour days a week to cover open shifts. The 911 Division’s overtime budget for the year was depleted by June, staffers said.

“The scheduling problems were exacerbated during the summer months due to staff vacation,” said Moira Cooper, deputy director of labor relations, in an email to The News. “However, since the high point of 13 vacancies in January, we are down to four vacancies.”

Cooper said employees have not been drafted to work mandatory overtime since mid-July and that the county is working to improve staffing, adjust overtime procedures and consider shift changes that would be fairer for everyone. The proposal for 12-hour shifts is something the county is willing to agree to, Cooper added.

“The county greatly appreciates the problems the union and employees brought to light,” Cooper said.

Slow progress

But most 911 Division employees say the slow pace of progress by both management and the union has caused a major hardship for those stuck working long, consecutive days answering calls from people in crisis. The ability to be patient and think clearly wears down after six, seven and eight straight days of work, they contend.

Legislator Lynne Dixon of Hamburg, who met with some of the 911 staff members and first received the letter, said she respects the difficult jobs the call takers have and wants to see changes soon.

“If you have something that improves morale and saves money, why wouldn’t you explore that?” she asked.

Several months ago, dispatchers with the county’s Medical Emergency Response System and Sheriff’s Office moved to 12-hour shifts, with positive results overall.

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There are several reasons for the slow negotiations with the 911 Division, according to Robert Mueller, a Civil Service Employees Association labor relations specialist who has negotiated with the county over this issue,

They include the retirement of former Central Police Services Commissioner John A. Glascott in March. No replacement has yet been named. County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz pulled Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr.’s name from consideration for the post last month.

In addition, Mueller said, a majority of employees did not originally agree that a 12-hour shift schedule would improve the situation. In April, an informal straw poll regarding such a shift change failed by three votes, with many employees uncertain and confused about the change, and some unwilling to vote at all without more assurances from their union representatives.

The fact that six veteran staff members work five-day schedules while the other staff members work seven to eight consecutive days also led to disagreements within the department.

Since April, however, it appears more employees have become willing to consider the 12-hour scheduling model after seeing how it works in other county divisions. Out of 26 employees in the 911 Division, 20 signed the letter sent to the Legislature last week.

Aiming for deal

Mueller pointed out call takers start out earning $33,000 a year but can make more with overtime.

Nearly 300,000 emergency calls came through the county’s 911 call center in the first six months of the year. The 911 Division handles and transfers cellphone calls countywide and takes all land-line calls in Buffalo.

Turnover is a problem, said Mueller, with some call takers transferring to other county jobs that pay less to avoid the scheduling conflicts.

“Every few years, we have a mass exodus out of this department,” he said.

Staff members want the Legislature to pressure the administration and the union to work more quickly toward a solution.

Like many other 911 call takers, Astyk says she loves her job. It’s fast paced, engaging and helps so many people. If not for the grueling schedule, she’d love it even more, she said.

The letter to the Legislature concludes, “All we are asking for is a chance for our voices to be heard, and an opportunity to make our lives and the 911 working environment better and safer.”

County administrators say that’s not too much to ask, and they’re offering to provide more information about the effects of a shift change which could lead to a vote.

“We are on board with offering this again and will provide as much detail as we can,” Cooper said. “We hope to have this together for a new vote within the coming weeks.”

email: stan@buffnews.com

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