Criminal Justice
 

Board that oversees 911 call center approves consolidation of dispatchers

With relatively little discussion, the city’s 911 board gave its final approval today to consolidate the city’s emergency communications system under Orleans Parish Communication District, a state-created agency.

The move in part is aimed at improving the time it takes to answer and respond to emergency calls.

Today’s vote gives board Chairman Terry Ebbert authorization to sign a one-year agreement with the city. The consolidation proposal now moves to the City Council for final passage.

The move will mean that 911 call-taking and dispatch, along with more than 100 employees, will move from three separate city agencies — Police, Fire and EMS — to the Communication District. Calls are now routed to agency employees depending on the type of emergency. Post-consolidation, all call-takers and dispatchers will be trained to handle all types of calls.

If it passes the council, that vote will bring to a conclusion a priority of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration since early in his first term. Landrieu believes consolidating the system and training all employees to take any kind of emergency call will improve answer times, leading to shorter waits for emergency personnel.

Although it’s not a city agency, the city pays for most 911 personnel, and six members of the 11-member board, which has oversight of the agency, are high-ranking city employees.

Today’s board meeting was a contrast from prior consolidation-related meetings, which saw vocal protests from the city’s firefighters union. The union objected to consolidation because it would remove all 911 operators from city employment, meaning they would lose job protections under the city’s Civil Service system. Civil Service is designed to protect employees from political interference, and union representatives were concerned that without Civil Service, the Landrieu administration would have unchecked control over hiring and firing at the 911 call center.

Fire union representatives were especially concerned because, unlike the other agency employees, firefighters have a collective-bargaining agreement with the city. Fire dispatchers who move to the Communication District will no longer be covered by that agreement unless the 911 board takes a separate vote to recognize the union and adopt the agreement.

Nick Felton, the union’s president, also claimed in past meetings that the salaries being offered to Communication District operators will be lower than what fire dispatchers currently make. The Landrieu administration disputed that.

But neither Felton nor other union representatives attended the meeting today. Brobson Lutz, the sole board member who has expressed serious skepticism about consolidation, also was absent. Lutz and Felton did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The board voted last month to give preliminary approval of the consolidation agreement but withheld authorizing Ebbert’s signature until the city could provide more specifics about pay and employee job protections. At today’s meeting, the board was given a copy of the personnel policy  and a sheet outlining each salary level.

The salary sheet, however, did not include comparisons to current salaries, as board members requested last month. But Eric Melancon, a Landrieu administration official who has been working on the consolidation effort, told board members that all employees who elect to transfer to the Communication District will be made whole.

“The individual impact for every single member being brought over is a positive or neutral impact,” he said.

He added that budgeted overtime will increase most pay rates by about 10 percent per year. Fire dispatchers, who now make more than other 911 employees, will automatically be placed on under the Telecommunicator II pay level, $40,500, nearly $10,000 above the lowest pay rate.

Melancon and former deputy mayor Jerry Sneed, the city’s point person on 911 consolidation, have previously promised to offer jobs to every operator now working at the 911 call center. And on Monday, the Civil Service Commission voted to allow city employees transferring to the Communication District to keep their accrued sick and annual leave days instead of taking a payout as is normally the case when someone leaves city employment.

Still, Teresa Thompson, a police dispatcher who spoke at the meeting, said the pay schedule was unfair. She now earns a base salary of almost $35,000, she said, and she will have to learn how to take calls and dispatch for EMS and fire. Under the current terms of the agreement, she and other employees will have a year to master those skills, though that term may be extended.

Thompson’s new salary will be $35,000.

“I’m taking more of a workload for $600 more,” she said.

Later in the meeting, NOPD Capt. Simon Hargrove requested that the board and the city consider raising pay for police dispatchers transferring to the Communication District. He said their pay should be somewhere between the $35,000 now being offered and the $40,500 being offered to fire dispatchers. Melancon promised to look into the idea.

Perhaps the most important part of the personnel policy presented today deals with employee discipline. Police, fire and EMS operators are now covered by Civil Service rules, which provide an appeals process for disciplinary actions. But they will no longer be civil service employees if they transfer to the Communication District.

The policy, which the board approved, provides a “progressive” disciplinary system, ranging from verbal warnings to written reprimands up to termination. It also contains an appeal process, though it’s slightly different than the Civil Service process.

Unlike the Civil Service system, consolidated 911 employees will not be able to appeal discipline to third-party hearing officers or arbitrators. Instead, they will appeal first to the Director of 911 Operations, a newly created position. In cases where the recommended discipline is more serious than a letter of reprimand, they can then appeal to a Personnel Appeals Committee made up of five 911 board members who will rotate in and out of the appeal committee. That’s a potential sticking point for some employees because most board members work for the city. The agreement calls for a minimum of two city and two non-city board members on the committee.

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