Philadelphians make over two million 911 calls every year, received by more than 200 police dispatchers and 43 fire dispatchers. The calls, which can range in urgency from minor traffic accidents to significant public safety incidents, require a swift response from dispatchers who say they are overworked and understaffed.
There are more than thirty vacant dispatch positions in Philadelphia, so dispatchers need to take more calls and volunteer for overtime shifts to keep up with call volume. When the list of volunteers for overtime is exhausted, dispatchers are required to work mandatory overtime.
“Mandatory [overtime] is not only causing more stress in an already stressful job, but it’s caused health issues and low morale,” said police dispatcher Nicole Kemmerer.
During a March 11 hearing on the challenges that 911 dispatchers face, City Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker said that understaffing and mandatory overtime are negatively influencing the physical and mental well-being of dispatchers.
“Dispatchers spend their entire shift dealing with people at the most panicked moments of their lives, and those people depend on us to give them help,” said Shannon Milteer, a police dispatcher. “Their lives are dependent on how quickly and efficiently the dispatcher reacts.”
Michael Gillespie, the commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police Department communications division, testified that dispatchers can be mandated for overtime for up to four hours at a time. Overtime is usually added to an eight-hour shift, and Gillespie noted that there had been complaints of fatigue.
“These complaints are understandable,” Gillespie said. “However, our data shows that any given dispatcher is only mandated once every four weeks.”
Dispatchers said this was a considerable increase in mandated overtime compared to previous years.
Milteer and Kemmerer, who have each worked in dispatch for about nine years, said that when they started the job, mandatory overtime was utilized for significant incidents or holidays once every year or two. There are now several dispatchers working mandated overtime shifts every day.
“When they are mandated, they are being forced to work long hours, which can lead to errors from the tired dispatchers,” Milteer said.
Police dispatch policies require a minimum of eight call takers for eight-hour shifts, while fire dispatch policies require a minimum of three dispatchers for 12-hour shifts.
“The Philadelphia Fire Department only has three to four call takers for the entire city, and when some call takers are more than 13 hours into a shift, more errors are apt to be made,” said Franki Risq, a fire dispatcher who has worked at the Fire Dispatch Center for 15 years.
There is a budget for 278 police dispatchers, but there are only 248 people who work in police dispatch. The 248 active employees include administrators, trainees, and people on leave, and it is not exclusive to dispatchers who take calls. Frank Halbherr, the president of AFSCME Local 1637, the union that represents police and fire dispatchers, testified that there are only 206 police dispatchers who actively take calls, while the optimal number of Philadelphia police dispatchers is 335.
There are currently 43 fire dispatchers, but Craig Murphy, the deputy commissioner of the Fire Department, testified that the department would need 61 dispatchers to be fully staffed.
Understaffing can cause significant challenges for dispatchers.
Milteer described to councilmembers a night shift with 13 dispatchers taking calls and using dispatch consoles to communicate with first responders. Many of the dispatchers were on a mandatory overtime shift. Ten of the mandated dispatchers completed their four-hour overtime shift at 3 a.m., leaving no one to take calls.
“Thankfully, there were two dispatchers who were willing to come in at 3 a.m., but if there was another unfortunate incident, such as a train derailment, there would not have been enough dispatchers to handle the incoming call volume,” said Milteer.
Understaffing has also caused increased mental strain for call takers. Risq said that when dispatchers complete a difficult call, “the immense sadness and frustration doesn’t go away when you disconnect from the call.”
Dispatchers often have to answer 911 calls within seconds of disconnecting from the previous call. Murphy recounted hearing a dispatcher instruct a caller about how to perform CPR on a loved one until EMS personnel arrived. Murphy said that less than 20 seconds later, the dispatcher took another 911 call.
“Being understaffed and working in a mandated overtime situation doesn’t allow us the chance to decompress and can depress the most experienced dispatcher,” Risq said.
Councilmember Curtis Jones said he realized the vast majority of dispatchers are women after taking a tour of a 911 call center with Councilmember Parker and staff.
Dispatchers said that many of them are single mothers, and mandatory overtime means they have to miss school events, games, or medical appointments, and they often have to pay for child care for a four-hour overtime shift.
Risq said dispatchers have to try to avoid taking bad calls home with them. Both Milteer and Kemmerer noted that the job affects their life at home and their interactions with their children because of nature of incidents that they have responded to, particularly ones that do not make news reports.
“I’ll tell my son or my daughter all the time, ‘You’re not doing this today,’ or ‘You’re not doing that.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Why?’” Kemmerer said. “It’s because you don’t hear the stuff that I hear. You don’t see the stuff that actually goes on in this city because it doesn’t make it to the news.”
The high level of stress required for the job, along with pay that is generally less than $45,000 annually, can discourage many potential job applicants. Most dispatchers do not last past a couple of years.
Several dispatchers interviewed spoke about the ways in which management structures and practices can negatively impact their jobs.
Fire dispatchers are supervised by civilians promoted into managerial roles from dispatch jobs, while in police dispatch, uniformed officers who might not have dispatch experience will supervise a civilian dispatch staff. This can lead to discouragement among police dispatchers who have limited prospects for advancement, and Halbherr testified that police dispatchers face disciplinary action for insubordination more often than fire dispatchers.
Supervisors in fire dispatch use corrective discipline as needed to instruct and assist dispatchers, Risq said. Their prior experience as dispatchers provides them with a better understanding of the work, and it allows dispatchers to ask questions or address problems more freely.
“We know that when we’re being corrected, there is a reason for it,” Risq said. “We know that they speak from actual experience, not just rules of what they think you should do, and it does make us stronger as a team.”
Since supervisors generally have less experience with both the workers and the dispatch systems, they may be unprepared for unexpected situations. Ayana Henry, a police dispatcher, described how the computerized police dispatch system once shut down during a late shift, and new supervisors were unprepared for the situation.
Henry said that when the system went down, seasoned dispatchers provided guidance on how to communicate with police in their district. She and other dispatchers emphasized that incidents like this demonstrate a reliance on institutional knowledge that may not always be available.
“We all may be gone one day from out of police radio,” said Milteer. “When something like that happens, it may not be another train derailment, but it may be another massive bus accident or something where a lot of people are hurt.”
Fire dispatch supervisors can jump in and help in a crisis, but police supervisors might not have the knowledge and experience required for the situation, she said.
“They don’t know what it’s like to be a dispatcher,” Milteer said. ”They know what it’s like to be an officer, but they can’t do the same things.”
Henry said that another problem was the lack of a clear and comprehensive disaster response plan communicated to dispatchers. While dispatchers working for more than a decade may have learned experience with reacting to mass casualty incidents, new dispatchers may not receive instructions or training on how to respond to such a situation.
“In my 11 years, there has been the duck boat incident, a serious hostage incident, the train derailment, and now the shooting in Nicetown, and we still have no clear disaster response plan,” she said. “We are disaster response, we need a plan. And our sister and brother counties, they have those, and I know because I’ve worked there.”
Parker noted that the concerns raised by dispatchers during the hearing would be considered during upcoming budget negotiations.
Parker explained she was motivated to introduce Resolution 200036, which called for the hearing, because of a story she came across in December. An Ohio woman called 911 to ask for assistance during a domestic violence incident, but she disguised the plea for help by pretending to order a pizza. She answered questions about her location and whether she was in danger by using coded language about the type of pizza that she was pretending to order, and the dispatcher realized that it was not a wrong number or prank call and instructed police responding to the incident to turn off their sirens to protect the safety of the caller.
“This takes a very unique skill set,” said Parker. “We need to hear the concerns of these 911 dispatchers. We don’t want what they are going through right now to negatively impact the function of our 911 call center.”
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