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Dispatch center has 44% turnover;
County facility's director hopes rate decreases with more trainingJACQUELINE SEIBEL, Staff, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Waukesha - The turnover rate for emergency dispatchers at Waukesha County's consolidated facility was nearly 44% in its first year of business, more than double the national average, according to center personnel records.

Dispatch centers have an average 17% turnover rate nationally, according to a study released in August by the University of Denver Research Institute.

Former County Executive Dan Finley, who proposed the countywide dispatch center, envisioned it handling all 37 agencies in the county. Currently it serves 29 agencies, handling calls from 51% of the county's population of about 370,000, and all wireless 911 calls in the county.

A Journal Sentinel analysis of the staffing levels at Waukesha County Communications from September 2004 through August shows an average of 34 dispatchers employed per month. Fifteen emergency dispatchers left during that period.

Nine of the employees resigned, four were fired, one was demoted and one retired.

"We expected the turnover to be higher than the national average," James Richter, Waukesha County labor relations manager, said of the center's first year.

Some people left for a job in law enforcement, some went back to school and some left because of family issues. Others were let go because they couldn't do several tasks simultaneously, or for violating county policies, Richter said.

In an analysis Richter performed, he found that the center's turnover has been just below 28% for 2005. The Journal Sentinel analysis of staff levels from January to August reached a similar conclusion, finding an average of 37 emergency dispatchers with 11 people leaving, a nearly 30% turnover so far.

Richard Tuma, the center's director and the county's director of emergency preparedness, said six people hired in September are still in training. They will bring the center closer to being fully staffed.

Training increasing

Tuma said he expects the turnover rate to go down in 2006 because the center is better at training and recruiting. Forty more hours of training have been added for every new person hired this year. Also, the center may implement a new computerized exam that simulates multitasking so management can better determine at the time of hiring if a person has the skills needed to be an emergency dispatcher.

David Hendrickson, a union representative for the dispatchers, said there are problems with the new center, and one of them is understaffing. Employees are being asked - and in some cases required - to work "a lot" of overtime, he said.

Also, the center's rules change frequently, he said. A dispatcher can feel fully trained and then one fire chief or police chief or administrator wants something done a different way, and the dispatcher has to abide.

"It's a very stressful job already, and then you add the constant changes and it becomes more stressful," Hendrickson said.

Waukesha County has been responsive in working with the union to resolve some of the problems, he said.

One emergency dispatcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared losing her job, said she's been working 20 to 30 hours of overtime per two-week pay period. She estimates the center as a whole is racking up 500 to 700 hours of overtime per month.

Tuma agreed there has been overtime but couldn't provide specifics.

The dispatcher said the overtime, a perceived lack of support from supervisors, the many changes in procedure, and the fear of reprimand if dispatchers make even the smallest mistake are making the environment intolerable.

"There's yelling and fighting going on across the room," she said.

She said the center is unorganized, and that management is arrogant and unwilling to take any blame while the dispatchers are being blamed for everything that goes wrong. When the center opened in mid-August 2004 and up until recently, many dispatchers received little or no training, she said.

"I can't believe it's ever going to make it," she said of the center.

An example of miscommunication occurred when the 911 call came in about the mass shootings on March 12 at the Sheraton Hotel in Brookfield. That city's Police Department, which joined the center only weeks before the shootings, prepared a report saying the county center's dispatchers knew of the city's requirement that a police supervisor must request mutual aid before it is sent to the scene.

The county says Brookfield police didn't follow procedure. Dispatchers who didn't know Brookfield's requirements sent squads from Delafield and the City of Pewaukee, who are members of the center, before New Berlin squads. New Berlin is the closest department, but it is not a member of the center.

As a result, the Brookfield report concludes, the police commander did not feel there was sufficient control of the crime scene because there was no central command control over which squads were arriving and how they were deployed.

Brookfield is the largest municipality in the center and has filed numerous inquiries, using a complaint form requesting information on procedure, since joining the center.

No degree program

For those interested in a career in dispatching, there is no degree program. In Waukesha's center, 40 hours of training for new hires was added this year, recognizing the need for more instruction, Tuma said.

To become a dispatcher for Waukesha County, a new hire goes through five weeks of classroom training - including the newly added extra week - and 12 weeks of one-on-one training with a supervisor, Tuma said. The dispatcher is on probation for the first year of employment.

Tuma said the training is also tailored to the experience of the new employee. Someone who comes in with experience will likely require less training time.

Bucking criticism of center leadership, Tuma said, "I think management is doing extremely well." What would help improve the center is more participation by its clients in the regular protocol meetings designed to establish uniform procedures, he said.

Steve Souder, project chairman for the national study on staffing and retention in public safety communications centers, released in August, said the concerns about turnover are not new.

Although he was not familiar with the specific issues at the county's dispatch center, Souder said, it will take all the members, management and staff, to make improvements.

Souder is director of communication services for the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland. It's true, Souder said, that a new center may go through a lot of changes that can contribute to turnover. A more established center may have less turnover, he said.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department's emergency dispatchers, for example, had a 10% turnover rate last year, said Gary Moschea, human resources director for the county.

Souder praised consolidation but said it cannot be done solely to save money.

"It has to be done to get a better product," he said, and politics must be kept out of its functions.

"There has to be an honest, mature approach by all the parties," Souder said. Management has to step up to the plate, dispatchers have to be fully trained, all the member departments have to leave their old ways behind and accept a new world, and uniform procedures have to be developed, he said.
 
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