Each year the Alexandria Police Departments E911 System receives 86,000 calls, 57,000 of which are from wireless callers. Last week the Alexandria City Council approved a grant application for state funding to look at E911 recruitment, retention and staffing levels.
According to the memorandum in support of the grant application, the police department is having problems staffing the emergency communications center and wants to look at the reasons for this issue and find ways to correct the problem.
Alexandria Police Chief David Baker said there are now seven full-time vacancies in the communications center. The center is allocated 23 full-time positions and five over hires.
We have had a higher vacancy rate in the communications center over the past 18 months or so, but we are not the only department having problems staffing E911 centers, Baker said. Our vacancy rate is comparable to what we are seeing in other municipalities.
The reasons are understandable, but the solutions are complex. E911 staff is required to work 12-hour shifts and must work weekends and holidays as scheduled.
They are confined in a small room and cant just get up and leave when they want, Baker said. Also, they take every type of call imaginable, from my neighbors cat is annoying to Im thinking of committing suicide.
Also, the equipment they must learn to operate to log and dispatch officers to handle calls has become incredibly complex over the past 10 to 15 years. It is not an easy job, Baker said.
The turnover rate is high, and the requirements of the job make recruiting difficult.
We may get 300 applications and we are ecstatic about that, but then only one or two of those applicants are able to pass all of the tests we require, Baker said.
E911 staff must undergo a background check, psychological tests, a polygraph examination and a Criticall test that evaluates an individuals ability to multitask.
On the surface, many applicants meet our minimum qualifications but then arent able to pass all of the additional testing we require, Baker said. Some municipalities did away with the polygraph requirement, but jurisdictions like Prince William County have reinstated it because of the problems the lack of it caused later.
Some E911 staff like Brenda DSylva left the communications center to move into other positions in the police department. DSylva worked in the communications center for 12 years before leaving. She now works in financial management for the department.
I liked working in communications, DSylva said. However, I was looking for career advancement and better pay. Thats really why I left.
John McClafferty has stayed in the communications center for 11 years. I like my schedule and dont know if I could ever work a 9-to-5 job now, he said. I basically work half of the year unless I want to work overtime.
There is always variety no two days are ever the same and I get to hear what is going on around the city, McClafferty said.
E911 staff talks to everyone.
Some people call to find out what time it is or if school is open, and they mostly call us because they dont know where else to call, McClafferty said. When I tell them that I dont know the answer to their question, they are mostly very polite, just frustrated.
Will grant help?
Even with the staffing issues, the communications center is never without call-takers or dispatchers. Full-time communications staff is augmented by staff who wish to work overtime and by police officers, who, because of injury or some medical condition, are on light or restricted duty.
I have a policy directive that uses trained staff in the communications center from the least expensive to the most expensive, Baker said. All of the 911 calls are going to be answered without any problem. We would just like to look at solutions to the hiring and retention issues that many of us have identified over the years.
The grant will begin that process and then other steps will need to be taken.
Right now, police and fire emergency communications staff is separate, said Deputy Chief Blaine Corle, who supervises the E911 center. An operator in the Alexandria Police Departments communications center answers every 911 call, and if the emergency is fire-related or requires an ambulance, we push a button and connect the caller to the fire department.
We believe that we could save money if the emergency communications staff for fire and police worked in the same room and were cross-trained, but we need to look at that, Corle said.
Council members would like to hear more.
If this is a problem, maybe we should look at it before we have the results of the study that is going to be paid for by this grant, said Mayor Bill Euille. Maybe there is something we need to do in the short term.
Baker doesnt think that is necessary.
If we are going to combine police and fire communications, the time to do that is when we move into a new facility in 2011. That appears to be the most cost-effective time to make any such change, and it will also give us time to complete this analysis, he said.