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Allegheny County 911 call center faces shortage of staff during COVID surge

Dispatchers are working 12-hour days, and shifts are below normal staffing levels as yearslong hiring problems persist.

by Charlie Wolfson, PublicSource

The Allegheny County 911 Center is facing “critical staffing issues” caused by long-term hiring problems and the COVID-19 surge that currently has more than 40 dispatchers out of service, union representatives say.

Rick Grejda, a business agent for the union that represents the dispatchers, SEIU Local 668, said the center has typically operated 10 to 15 workers below the normal level of 51 during the last month. The center now employs 211 dispatchers, well below the budgeted level of 259 dispatchers. 

The center handles 911 calls and dispatches police, fire and paramedic service throughout Allegheny County. 

“Workers are exhausted from working the mandatory overtime and working with less staff to do the same amount of work,” Grejda said.

Dispatchers were made to work mandatory overtime on top of their regular eight-hour shifts until last month, union members said, when management compelled them to work 12-hour shifts instead. 

Chief Matt Brown of Allegheny County Emergency Services said in a statement provided by the county that alternative schedules have “minimized” the staffing challenges.

“Our 9-1-1 staffing fluctuates day to day related to similar date call history, planned events and potential weather impacts that can increase call volume,” according to Brown’s statement. “The operations also allow for increased call taker capability almost instantly by directing calls to radio desks not actively managing incident communications. This is always a function of operating the center.” 

Grejda said the number of dispatchers out with COVID increased by 10 in the last five days, and the number continues to climb even as dispatchers return to service. He said during the weekend of Jan. 8, “there was half the minimal number of 911 call takers required to staff” the center. Brown pointed out in his statement that COVID impacts on staff are not unique to the county’s 911 center. “Similar and worse impacts to other 9-1-1 operations across the Commonwealth and the nation exist as well,” he said

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