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Allegheny County 911 Dispatchers Face Staffing Shortages, Long Hours

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Allegheny County 911 dispatchers are working relentlessly to keep the public safe while experiencing staffing shortages.

Inside the Allegheny County 911 call center, there are normally 14 call takers working during a shift. But recently, there have been as few as seven, according to Rick Grejda, a business agent for the dispatchers' union, SEIU Local 668.

"It's been pretty bad and the folks are bearing the brunt of that and it's taking a toll on folks," said Al Smith, a business agent for SEIU Local 668.

Smith said hiring dispatchers has been a challenge for close to a decade, and COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem.

"There are 259 positions budgeted. They only have 211 of those positions filled and of those 211, they have 40 of those folks out for COVID leave," Smith said.

Because of that, he said dispatchers have been working 12-hour shifts for almost two months.

"The job itself is already difficult, but now you're talking about working 12-hour shifts. If you are lucky, you get home in an hour, right, and you try to get some sleep, see your family, then you're back to work. You repeat that over and over and over again, and you add that to the stress of the job," Smith said.

Chief Matt Brown of Allegheny County Emergency Services said in a statement, "We have met regularly - and continue to meet - with union leadership regarding all staffing impacts to our 9-1-1 operations. The purpose of these meeting was to discuss suspected staffing shortages, coupled with COVID-19 impacts, employee call offs and scheduled vacations which would increasingly be of concern. Our current staffing challenges have been minimized with the implementation of alternative schedules. 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."

With a possible snowstorm on the way for Sunday and Monday, Smith said do not hesitate to call 911 if you have an emergency.

"Folks are going to work as hard as they can to answer every call that comes in. People should not hesitate to call 911, stay on the line if they need to, that's the safest thing to do. Don't for once think that hanging up and calling back will get a better result. You'll just go to the end of the cue," Smith said.

He said some dispatchers have volunteered to work extra hours during the upcoming snow event.

Brown also said in his statement, "When calling 9-1-1, always remain on the line until answered. Do not hang up and repeatedly call back. Every time a caller disconnects and calls back, they go back into the bottom of the call queue. In the event you are disconnected, all calls are returned immediately. In the event a caller cannot be reached, first responders are dispatched to the last known location of the caller to confirm if assistance is needed. This is always the standard of operations."

Smith said the union contract recently expired.

"The contract just expired at the end of the year on the 31st of 2021 December. We're waiting for additional dates to get back to the table. I believe that we're far apart with a lot of things that we have to work, we gotta get resolved. Hopefully, we'll do that. If we not, then we'll figure out where we go from there," Smith said.

The county is always hiring telecommunications officers. Anyone interested in learning more or applying can visit here and look for the postings for 9-1-1.

EMERGENCY COMPONENT - LOCAL

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