August 20, 2019

Understaffing at the root of Illinois Dispatcher protest

QComm911 Dispatchers Protest

9-1-1 Employees Protest to Bring Attention to PSAP Staffing

Employees of the Illinois Quad Cities Communications Center, also known as QComm911, staged a protest outside of the Milan Municipal Building last Thursday. Along with their supporters and members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), their purpose was to bring attention to the staffing crisis within the QComm911 center.

QComm911, located in Rock County, is a consolidated dispatch center consisting of the cities of Milan, Moline, East Moline and Silvas. The center is one of several consolidations within the state of Illinois that were the result of legislation passed in 2015 that mandated the reduction of the number of PSAPs serving communities within the state.

Related Story: Work is underway on QComm911 dispatch consolidation

Since the beginning of the year, QComm911 dispatchers have worked over 2400 hours of mandatory overtime to compensate for short staffing. Statistics compiled by employees reveal that while call volume provides justification for a staffing compliment of 32 employees, there are only 21 positions filled. This falls significantly short of the projected staffing of 30 employees that was reported by individuals involved in the consolidation effort in 2017.

Since the consolidated center began its operation January 1, the center has operated in a short staff condition for at least two full months until open positions were posted in March. However, those job postings have not yielded the results needed to lessen the stress on employees nor reduce the required overtime to meet service demands.

Related Story: IA 9-1-1 Dispatchers Protest over Understaffing

PSAP Staffing not a new Issue

While QComm911’s approach to bringing attention to their staffing crisis is unique, PSAP staffing challenges are not a new issue. In fact, it is a very pervasive issue that has plagued the PSAP community for at least the past decade, if not longer. An Internet search of the phrase ‘9-1-1 staffing shortage’ will yield numerous pages of news stories and reports that demonstrate that 9-1-1 staffing shortages are not isolated to QComm911 or the state of Illinois.

While past industry efforts, such as APCO’s Project Retains and NENA’s PSAP Staffing Guidelines Report, have provided guidance to agencies to tackle the issue, there has been no significant progress in this area. Most likely this is due to the lack of any legislative or regulatory influence into staffing guidelines for PSAPs. While NENA and APCO are recognized as the 9-1-1 industry’s standards development organizations (SDOs), they lack the ability to provide oversight into 9-1-1 staffing, which is managed at the local 9-1-1 authority level.

Significant efforts have been made to educate public leaders on the nature of the job of the 9-1-1 dispatcher in the last few years. Those efforts highlight the challenges that currently plague 9-1-1 PSAPs:

  1. Employment classifications that group the role with clerical, administrative positions that require minimal training and do not serve in life-safety roles
  2. Salaries that do not reflect the importance of the role, often requiring dispatchers to obtain 2nd jobs to meet financial obligations
  3. Post-traumatic stress or psychological trauma that can be experienced by 9-1-1 dispatchers in handling emergency calls.
  4. Lack of wellness programs available that address the specific needs of the role
  5. Discrepancies in hiring standards across agencies
  6. Hiring and retention of 9-1-1 dispatchers unable to keep up with the increased demand for emergency services

California Congresswoman Tackling Job Perception

While several of the challenges listed above will not be solved overnight, U.S. Representative Norma Torres (D-CA) has introduced legislation at the federal level to address the classification of 9-1-1 dispatchers. H.R. 1629, also known as the ‘911 Saves Act‘, seeks to correct the federal classification of 9-1-1 professionals by reclassifying them as protective service occupations. The protective service occupations includes other public safety roles such as police officer and fire fighter.

There is no disputing that the current staffing crisis in our 9-1-1 PSAPs is a multi-faceted problem that will require a multi-threaded approach to chip away at improving conditions. If the 911 Saves Act is successful, it may be the catalyst that can help state and local 9-1-1 authorities affect long-desired change in the industry.

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