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Erie County must find a way to reduce stress among 911 workers

Most people would agree that 911 dispatchers have stressful jobs that require some time for recuperation.

But that isn’t happening at the Erie County Central Police Services 911 Division, where excessive overtime is the norm.

Management and the union must come to an agreement that will result in fewer hours worked by too few people. At the same time, they’ll have to figure out a way to satisfy those employees, starting at $33,000 a year, who have come to depend upon healthy paychecks supported by those overtime hours.

But it comes at a high cost: to workers’ health in handling the nearly 300,000 emergency calls that came through the county’s 911 center in the first half of this year alone; to the taxpayers who pay for all of the overtime; and especially to those in crisis whose calls for help may be answered by an overstressed staffer.

It is no surprise that the department sees a lot of churn, as employees leave for lower-paying jobs with more stable hours.

As recently reported, employees have complained about an “antiquated” scheduling system that results in many of them working full-time shifts seven to eight days in a row. Some employees work as many as 16 hours a day.

These call-takers and dispatchers are handling calls that often mean the difference between life and death. They have to be sharp. It is unrealistic to expect the highest and best decision-making skills from someone who is overly stressed and exhausted.

So it is no wonder that 20 employees signed a letter to the County Legislature asking for changes to a schedule they accurately describe as “dangerous.” They want to explore a 12-hour shift schedule. Why not give it a try? The county’s Medical Emergency Response System and Sheriff’s Office moved to 12-hour shifts with good results.

Mistakes can cost lives. If, as the letter says, and as anyone can believe, the schedule is taking a physical, mental and emotional toll, then something needs to change. The dispatch center produces a mixed bag of calls from shootings to stabbings to found bodies and frightened children and frantic parents, all combined into a work shift that can last longer than normal, stretching nerves to the breaking point.

County administrators are focused on the problem, which has already zapped this year’s overtime budget for the 911 Division. The deputy director of labor relations said in an email to The News that “since the high point of 13 vacancies in January, we are down to four vacancies.”

That has meant fewer employees forced to work overtime since mid-July. It’s a good start and gives county officials enough breathing room to consider staffing, adjust overtime procedures and consider fair and equitable shift changes. Finding a new Central Police Services commissioner would also help. John A. Glascott retired in March. No replacement has been named.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz pulled Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel Jr.’s name from consideration last month after information surfaced about the chief’s 1999 personnel report. Michel said he wants a probe by the State Attorney General’s Office as to who may have retrieved the report from his office file drawer.

Not everyone accepted a 12-hour shift schedule as a better alternative, according to Robert Mueller, a Civil Service Employees Association labor relations specialist, who has negotiated with the county. It wasn’t until April that more employees have come around to the idea.

The Legislature has been asked to help the situation. Lynne Dixon of Hamburg has already met with some of the 911 staff members. Solving the problem is critical for the employees and the public.

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