Government & Politics

City’s 911 call center keeps enough staffing despite unexpected departures

The number of police dispatchers and call-takers leaving the New Orleans 911 call center this week decreased slightly from estimates last week, but the departures still took city officials off guard, evidenced by their 11th-hour efforts to keep people on.

Officials said overtime will allow them to keep the center appropriately staffed as they move to hire more employees.

The Lens reported last week that at least 24 of the call center employees — 18 percent of its former staffing level — declined to stay after Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan consolidating the 911 services went into effect on Sunday. It appears that at least 14 have made the move; city officials didn’t answer questions about the total departures.

The performance of the call center has typically been below national standards, with a high percentage of callers waiting too long or simply hanging up after waiting for extended periods. Landrieu’s plan attempts to solve that through streamlining.

Prior to consolidation, all call center employees worked for one of three city departments — police, fire or EMS — and calls were routed to them depending on the type of emergency. Under Landrieu’s plan, all call-takers and dispatchers will be trained to handle any type of call. Rather than working for the city, the employees will work for the Orleans Parish Communication District, a state-created agency. As a result, the employees who moved to the Communication District have lost city civil-service job protections, though the city guaranteed that they would retain other benefits and, in many cases, receive higher pay.

Of the 24 who said they were going to leave as of last week, the biggest potential loss was among New Orleans Police Department call-takers and dispatchers. Sixteen sought a transfer to another city agency. Their other option was to accept jobs with the Orleans Parish Communication District.

Unclear what final tally is

A Monday email from Jerry Sneed, Landrieu’s point-person on the consolidation effort, reveals that 14 police employees — two supervisors, seven dispatchers and five call-takers — ultimately decided to leave. The losses amount to about 17 percent of 84 Police Department employees who were assigned to the call center. He didn’t say how many EMS or fire employees left.

The final number was lower than the 19 police employees who last week said they were poised to accept Sewerage & Water Board positions. Still, on Monday, Sneed wrote that the Communication District lost more Police Department personnel than it had initially expected.

“Last week we were blindsided when we got rumors that several NOPD communications personnel who had previously accepted our OPCD job offers had also accepted Civil Service job offers,” Sneed wrote.

The surprise departures led to some last-minute scrambling by Sneed and others.

Here’s what happened in the past seven days, according to emails from city officials and interviews by The Lens:

On April 27,Communication District Director Stephen Gordon emailed Communication District and city officials of the impending staff shortage.

Sneed responded that he’d taken two actions to address the problems.

Most, if not all, were transferring to the Sewerage & Water Board. Sneed wrote back to Gordon and others that the city had successfully requested that the Sewerage & Water Board move their start dates back.

But everyone who hadn’t accepted a job with the Communication District was set to be laid off by the city on Saturday. Moving back the start date at S&WB alone wouldn’t keep people at the call center.

So Sneed also asked the city’s Civil Service Department to delay the layoffs by 60 days. The move would allow the employees to work at the call center while remaining on NOPD’s payroll.

It would also give employees more time to reconsider accepting a job with the 911 center — and more time for officials to convince them. The consolidation plan benefits from keeping such experienced employees, rather than starting with new hires.

After two months, they still could transfer to the Sewerage & Water Board if they wanted. Personnel Director Lisa Hudson, who heads the Civil Service Department, agreed.

A last-minute change

But Sneed withdrew the request on Friday, saying, “We have concluded that the extension of layoff for a portion of 9-1-1 employees is inappropriate and unworkable.”

He then sent a letter to 19 call center employees, nearly all of them from the list of likely Sewerage & Water Board transferees listed in Civil Service records.

Using similar language as in his letter to Hudson, he wrote, “We have learned that the extension of the layoff for a portion of 9-1-1 employees is inappropriate and unworkable.” The letter did not explain that Sneed himself withdrew that request.

Also, Sneed incorrectly told the employees that they had missed an April 15 Civil Service deadline to request transfers within city government. Employees can transfer up to the layoff date.

Further, he also didn’t tell the employees that the S&WB agreed, at his request, to delay hiring a large number of them. Instead, he encouraged them to verify their position.

“If you believe that the Sewerage & Water Board has offered you employment and you intend to accept that offer, please contact the Sewerage and Water Board directly,” Sneed wrote.

Late Friday afternoon, Hudson wrote to Sneed saying that of the 19 employees who received his letter, a number were still interested in transferring. However, because Sneed withdrew his request to delay their layoffs from the Police Department, she wrote, the Sewerage & Water Board was no longer prepared to take them all on Monday. She asked if he would allow their layoffs to be extended until Tuesday.

Sneed refused, instead suggesting that the Civil Service Commission grant the employees preferential rehiring at a later date.

That put the employees in a bind on Friday, the day before the layoffs: Take a job with the call center and lose civil service protections, or be laid off, lose benefits and hope to be rehired by a city agency later.

The Lens questioned the city late Friday about these maneuvers and Sneed’s letter.

In a statement to The Lens Friday evening, city spokesman Hayne Rainey contradicted the portion of Sneed’s letter that said employees missed the chance to transfer. Therefore, he also took issue with the contention that employees had only the choice to work for the call center or be laid off.

“No 9-1-1 employee is being forced into any position. All 9-1-1 employees have the option of accepting a position at OPCD or whatever option Civil Service offered to them, including SWB. Both agencies are willing to hire these affected employees,” Rainey wrote. He confirmed Saturday that 19 positions were open at the utility and could be filled immediately.

What a difference a weekend makes

As of Friday, only four Police Department employees had confirmed that they wanted to transfer to the Sewerage & Water Board. On Monday, 14 showed up for orientation at the utility’s office and were hired Monday, despite Sneed’s letter saying they missed the deadline.

Rainey said nothing changed over the weekend.

At least 12 of them appear to be the same Sneed wrote about in his Monday email. Of the seven dispatchers and five call-takers who didn’t take Communication District jobs, “I think all reported for jobs at S&WB,” Sneed wrote in the email.

Nonetheless, Sneed wrote, the 911 call center has enough staff to get by for now. Fifteen trained police dispatchers remain, with five more in training. Forty one trained police call-takers are still there, and six are in training.

“We have enough call-takers working 12 hour shifts to handle the job but we should start hiring additional tele-communicators this week to replenish our ranks,” Sneed wrote. He added that the Communication District was forced to cancel a scheduled training session this month due to the “unexpected loss of these key personnel.”

Sneed’s email to a number of city officials ends on a cautiously optimistic note.

“These next several months might be difficult at times but from watching the actions of our leadership team, I am even more confident that Consolidation will succeed!”

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