OT costs for Allegheny County's 911 center spikes
Overtime costs in the Allegheny County Emergency Services Department soared in recent years and could top $2 million by the end of the year, breaching a threshold that could spur the county to hire more 911 dispatchers.
Public safety officials point to frequent storms forcing staffers at the 911 Communications Center in Point Breeze to work long hours to handle a potential deluge of calls. Labor union officials, however, said rising overtime is a sign of a staffing shortage that must be addressed.
“Our position is the county needs to hire more full-time personnel,” said Rick Grejda, a former 911 dispatcher and business agent for the Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents dispatchers. “They are spending increasing amounts of money and materially affecting the quality of service.”
Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson said the county has filled its full-time dispatch positions and is evaluating staffing needs. If overtime costs for 2013 top $2 million, as spending projects it will, the department might hire more dispatchers or change staffing patterns, Henderson said.
“It's a balancing act,” Henderson said. “Sometimes, it does make financially prudent sense to have overtime.”
County Controller Chelsa Wagner plans to review the department “to find ways to promote financial efficiency and optimal working conditions for those on the front lines of our public's safety,” she said.
The 911 center handles about 1.3 million calls annually, a number that steadily increased as the county took over dispatching responsibilities for smaller municipalities and Pittsburgh, Henderson said. The number of dispatchers has stayed consistent, about 212, for the past five years. The county's 911 center is the second-busiest in Pennsylvania behind Philadelphia.
Of the $1.71 million in overtime the county paid to emergency service employees in 2012, 85 percent went to 911 dispatchers, according to the county controller's office. Overtime costs for the department jumped 28 percent in 2012, and 31 percent for dispatchers. Through July of this year, the department has paid $1.22 million in overtime. If the trend continues, the county will spend $2.09 million on overtime for the department.
One employee more than doubled her salary in 2012 with nearly $60,000 in overtime. Eight employees in the department earned more than $20,000 in overtime in 2012; 51 employees made more than $10,000.
Henderson said the county budgets about $2 million a year for overtime. He attributed the bump in 2012 to Hurricane Sandy, which put the department on high-alert as the storm roared inland. Frequent storms in 2013 have necessitated abnormally high levels of overtime.
“We've had a lot of weather cells that didn't pan out,” Henderson said. “It looked like Allegheny County was going to be smack dab in the center for Hurricane Sandy. Thankfully, it sort of broke up.”
High levels of overtime are not unique to Allegheny County. New York City dispatchers held a public protest in July to decry 80-hour work weeks. Dispatchers in San Jose, Calif., threatened to strike because of overtime tied to a staffing shortage.
In addition to requiring extra staff during emergencies and events — playoff games, parades, large concerts — the need for overtime arises because of holidays and vacations at the around-the-clock dispatch center, Henderson and Grejda said.
“I understood,” said Rick Mancuso, who retired from the dispatch center in 2007 after about a decade. “There are seats, and those seats have to be occupied.”
Mancuso, 65, of Beechview stopped working overtime in 2005 because of a heart condition.
Any extra hours — typically four or eight — drained him. Dispatchers can work up to 16 hours per day.
“It's a taxing job,” Mancuso said. “Even an eight-hour shift can be tough, but when you're working a 16, (it's) trouble staying awake, I'll tell you.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.