Criminal Justice

Changes at 911 call center lead to departures and shortage of dispatchers

This story has been updated with comments from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office.

At least 24 employees of the city’s 911 call center have declined to continue working there after a long-awaited consolidation plan goes into effect, according to internal emails obtained by The Lens. The loss amounts to 18 percent of the call center’s former staffing level of 130 employees.

Those who stay will no longer work for the city, but for the Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the call center. Therefore, they stand to lose civil service job protections, though the district and the city promised to offer at at least the same, and in many cases higher, base pay. Many of those leaving the call center are seeking a transfer within city government.

The biggest losses appear to come from from employees who specialize in emergencies requiring a police response, rather than fire or medical. Of the 24, eight were police call-takers and eight were police dispatchers, according to the emails. According to the emails, another two police dispatchers and three call-takers may be leaving but have not confirmed it.

City officials are working to delay the transfer of several employees past this Sunday, when the consolidation staffing plan officially goes into effect. In a written statement, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s spokesman Hayne Rainey said the Police Department is making adjustments to its schedule for this weekend to ensure that adequate personnel are on duty at the call center.

Landrieu’s consolidated plan, proposed early in his first term and approved this year, changes how 911 call-taking and emergency dispatch works. Pre-consolidation, call-takers and dispatchers have been employed by one of three city departments — police, fire and EMS — and dispatched calls only for their own agencies. Post-consolidation, call-takers and dispatchers will handle all types of emergency calls.

This unification was meant to improve 911 responsiveness, but even before the consolidation staffing plan goes into effect, it appears to have led to a serious shortage of police dispatchers.

“Last night, Tuesday, only two (2) dispatchers reported for work and the one (1) supervisor working the NOPD Command Desk also manned a channel. Other dispatchers were on sick leave,” wrote Stephen Gordon, executive director of the Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the call center.

The call center’s staffing plan requires four police dispatchers on active duty and two relief dispatchers — taking over during breaks — per shift. Gordon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gordon wrote that several of the employees who are leaving are headed for jobs at the Sewerage & Water Board, where they won’t be expected to work after-hours and weekend shifts. According to a Wednesday afternoon email sent to communication district and city officials from Jerry Sneed, the Landrieu administration’s point person on 911 consolidation, the Sewerage & Water Board “has agreed to delay taking these individuals in the interest of public safety.”

“We know we’re going to have to hire and train some additional people. There will be some overtime involved,” said Terry Ebbert, chairman of the Orleans Parish Communication District’s board of commissioners.

Some additional personnel have already been hired, Ebbert said. As for filling the gap that still remains, the city is planning to shift staff from other departments. In his email, Sneed mentioned the possibility of allowing some employees to temporarily stay on with NOPD rather than going over to the Communication District.

“There’s measures the departments will take to make sure that we’ll have adequate levels of people, even if that means supervisory people who know the system,” Ebbert said.

An email from NOPD Capt. Frederick Morton outlined some of the suggestions the Police Department may take to fill in the gaps. Morton proposed temporarily disbanding the Alternative Police Response Unit — formed to handle low-priority calls — and shifting those officers to emergency calls.

In his email, Morton seemed concerned that EMS and fire call-takers at the 911 center have been fully cross trained yet.

“I know it will be a trial by fire, but no better time than the present and it is better to have them than no one answering the 911 calls. They are our best options to fill in on an overtime basis. I think this is the most LOGICAL path to take at the moment,” he wrote.

Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, said the staffing losses are directly related to the way the Landrieu administration handled consolidation. Instead of working for the city, the employees who stay on post-consolidation will work for the Communication District, a state-created agency. That meant the employees had to be laid off by the city before accepting positions with the Communication District, where all of them were offered jobs. Under Landrieu’s plan, it meant that they would lose Civil Service job protections, a move that led to wide opposition from the city’s fire union, its two largest police association and many 911 employees.

“They don’t like the idea of the consolidation. They think it’s not going to benefit public safety. They don’t like the fact that they don’t have Civil Service protection,” Hessler said. “They think consolidation is more of a political move than it is one for public safety.”

Ebbert said that employees who stay on will be treated well.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think our people would be taken care of,” he said.

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