- Dispatcher Janice Frer at her post in Arlington's emergency communications center. (Photo: TBD Staff)
John Crawford, director of Arlington County’s Emergency Communications Center, found himself wishing he could send the center’s call takers and dispatchers home after they had been on duty for 16 hours or more during the snowstorm that whipped through the D.C. area in late January. But it just wasn’t possible.
The ECC was receiving a steady barrage of calls, and one shift stayed an additional six hours once the second shift of employees came on to relieve them, because there just wouldn’t have been enough people working.
“I was not only calling them back, but calling in other people not scheduled,” says Crawford, who calls the recent storm “an eye opener” for the center’s staffing issues.
“They worked through literally hundreds of calls for hours on end. I could see that the people who were here going on 16 hours were exhausted,” Crawford adds.
The Jan. 26 storm presented extenuating circumstances, but the scramble to staff up the ECC is a familiar one even on a regular day, Crawford says. There are a minimum number of employees that are supposed to be on the floor at any given time in the ECC; last year, the center frequently fell short of those minimums.
A report accompanying the county’s proposed 2012 budget [PDF] — in which the ECC and the Department of Emergency Management are asking the Arlington County Board for a more than 10 percent increase in funding — shows that the ECC met minimum staffing just 47 percent of the time in Fiscal Year 2010.
And even now, the ECC only has enough call takers and dispatchers on staff to meet the minimums with regular staffers on half of its shifts. There are four shifts, each of which are supposed to include 10 people. On the regular schedule, two of those shifts only have eight and nine people scheduled, respectively. It’s up to the ECC management to fill those extras with overtime workers each week. If anyone is sick, on vacation, or in training, that means even more overtime.
Staffing up for a larger event requires even more overtime workers. “Every day it’s a challenge to find the skill sets needed and get the people here to make sure we’re serving the public,” Crawford says. “We sometimes have to deny leave because we don’t have the skill sets.”
The overtime also comes with its own set of problems. The ECC has overspent on overtime every year for the past five years, meaning additional charges of anywhere from $450,000 to $660,000.
The ongoing staffing issues are why the Office of Emergency Management is making a pitch for a pretty dramatic uptick in staffing and benefits in next year’s budget. The current proposed budget includes eight additional staff members for ECC, as well as other salary increases for existing employees, to the tune of $1 million, according to Office of Emergency Management director Jack Brown.
But a report the ECC provided to the county in 2009 show that the need for more ECC staffers has been ongoing since at least 2002. (Two studies were conducted, on in 2002 and one in 2005, both of which recommended additional staff members.) It begs the question, why is the county just ramping up staffing now?
Brown says that they wanted to make sure they identified the root causes of the constant staffing issues in the ECC, many of which are caused by turnover. Once they figured out what they had to do, the county was in the throes of a couple of really bad budget years, with little room for increase. “The last two budget years were particularly tough on the county, so if we were going before the County Board and asking for additional positions in that budget climate, we really wanted to have our ducks in a row,” Brown says. “This is the year to do that.”
The ECC has seen turnover rates of more than 20 percent in recent years, according to the budget documents. Crawford says the reasons range from staffers getting burned out from havin to work so much overtime to not enough advancement opportunities to better pay in neighboring jurisdictions.
“In the past couple of years, we were losing a number of people to other emergency call centers for more money,” Crawford says. “That was a huge red flag to us.” A recent pay increase for existing ECC staff brought them in line with what call takers and dispatchers are paid in Alexandria and Fairfax County, he adds. “We now have a very competitive pay scale at a variety of levels.” The 2012 budget, if passed, would also add another level of promotion opportunity for staffers in the form of a “deputy commander” position.
Brown also highlights that despite the ongoing staffing issues, the ECC is still getting to everyone’s calls. (Crawford notes that the center didn’t receive any complaints about long waits or busy signals during the January storm, as happened in some other local jurisdictions.)
But they’re not always moving as quickly as they’d like. The center aims to process and dispatch all emergency calls within 90 seconds. Last year, they hit that target about 75 percent of the time, according to OEM data.
Crawford says he’s hopeful that the ECC budget increase will go through, and kick off a three-year plan to stabilize staffing at the center. The OEM directors meet with the County Board today to discuss the proposed 2012 budget.