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Baltimore County union says 911 staffing problems persist

Employees take calls in Baltimore County’s 911 center in Towson.
Employees take calls in Baltimore County’s 911 center in Towson.(Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun)

Disagreements between Baltimore County 911 workers and administrators have come to a head, with union leaders planning a rally this week to focus attention on the Towson call center.

The Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees says high turnover and vacancies at the 911 center could put public safety at risk. The union says employees object to the county's plan to switch to shifts that rotate between days and nights, beginning in January. County administrators contend they need the change to ensure that each shift is staffed with experienced employees.

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John Ripley, head of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said about 25 workers have left the center in the past six months. He said they are leaving largely because they don't want to switch to rotating shifts.

"Our calculation is it's over 230 years of experience, and that's something that's not replaced easily," Ripley said. "We just feel like it's a formula for disaster."

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The clash in the county comes amid complaints in Baltimore City about dropped 911 calls and busy signals during emergencies there. County officials say they have not experienced those types of problems.

A rally organized by the union is planned for Monday at 5:30 p.m. before the regularly scheduled County Council meeting. The union contends that rotating shifts are unhealthy for workers and create family hardships.

County officials say that over the years, 911 employees have been allowed to change shifts when a vacancy occurs, leading to an imbalance in experience because more experienced workers take the most desirable shifts.

"These assignment changes were approved with such frequency, for the employees' benefit, that the experience gap ... became dramatic and had to be corrected," county administrative officer Fred Homan wrote in an open letter to 911 center employees last week.

For example, Homan said, at one point last year, the average experience for the 911 call-taking evening shift was about three years, while the average experience on the fire dispatch day shift was about 21 years.

County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler emphasized the center receives on average only 10 complaints from the public per year out of 750,000 calls.

According to county administrators, the center has 172 employees and 15 vacancies. A new class of 23 people is about to start, Kobler said.

"After their six weeks of training and two months of mentoring, we plan to be over authorized strength," Kobler said in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

Because of under-staffing at the 911 center, county officials moved seven police and fire employees to the facility this year. Five firefighters and two police officers are working at the 911 center, with plans to return them to their police and fire positions within three months, Kobler said.

Last month, Capt. Joseph Conger, the police department's technology and communications commander, said his division had received complaints from officers who said dispatchers were "unequipped to handle" inquiries involving law enforcement databases.

"The 911 Center Administration has assured us that this should not be happening," Conger wrote.

Kobler said the complaints were the result of "a one-time mistake by an individual dispatcher."

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"Management corrected that individual on the mistake," she said.

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