The Erie County personnel who answer 911 calls have long complained about short-staffing, forced overtime and long workweeks.
At one time, they say, these conditions resulted in some stressed-out call-takers working 16-hour shifts and as many as seven or eight days in a row – a schedule that made it hard to be at their best when handling critical calls.
But thanks to a tentative agreement reached between the county administration and the union, emergency call-takers and dispatchers should have the opportunity to try out a new schedule of 12-hour shifts aimed at ensuring that no staff member works more than three days in a row, guaranteeing every other weekend off, and sharply reducing or eliminating forced overtime.
Marlaine P. Hoffman, acting commissioner of Central Police Services, called the agreement “very good news” in an appearance before the County Legislature last week.
From the start of this year through midsummer, Erie County 911 call-takers complained that staff turnover, high vacancy rates and scheduled vacation time resulted in a “dangerous” situation in which those being asked to respond to crisis calls were forced to work full-time shifts seven or eight days in a row, with some employees working up to 16 hours a day.
These staffers answer all 911 calls from the City of Buffalo along with all those made from mobile phones throughout the county – more than half a million calls a year.
In August, 20 of 26 emergency call-takers and dispatchers in Central Police Services signed a letter demanding the right to vote on a 12-hour shift schedule, similar to what county ambulance and sheriff’s dispatchers moved to several months ago, in which no employee is scheduled to work more than two or three days in a row.
Since then, Hoffman said the county and the Civil Service Employes Association have negotiated a proposed agreement that would allow employees to adopt a 12-hour schedule. An employee vote on the new schedule is slated for Thursday.
Not all call-takers support the proposed new schedule, particularly veteran employees who are grandfathered under an older schedule that limits them to working five eight-hour days a week. But the majority have expressed support for the schedule and are expected to vote in favor.
Assuming that this happens, the new 12-hour schedule would go into effect Jan. 1. Although the county could put the schedule into place sooner, the union and the county agreed to wait until then to honor existing employee vacation requests through the holiday season, Hoffman said.
Hoffman also told the Legislature that only one vacancy currently exists in the 911 call-taking unit. That figure is down from a high of 13 in January, which resulted in many employees being forced to work overtime.