CFL News
October 18, 2011

Alderman, union fight Emanuel plan to reduce police and fire dispatchers

Aldermen and unions oppose a measure in the proposed 2012 Chicago budget to reduce staffing at the 911 emergency call center, a move that would increase wait times for callers

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

By Fran Spielman

Chicago firefighter-turned-alderman Nick Sposato (36th) and the union representing fire dispatchers maneuvered Monday to kill Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to reduce the ranks of police and fire dispatchers at the city’s 911 emergency center.

Fire and EMS dispatcher Jeff Johnson , union steward for IBEW Local 9, said the mayor’s plan to eliminate the jobs of 17 fire dispatchers, lay off nine others and shrink the supervisory ranks from 13 to 8 could send response times and employee burn-out rates through the roof.

The jobs of 45 police dispatchers would also be eliminated. So would four of 22 radio repair technicians at a time when radio and data frequencies need to be reprogrammed to comply with a Federal Communications Commission mandate.

“We strive to answer every call in under two rings. With these cuts, it’ll go from two seconds to 15 seconds. That’s a very dangerous number,” Johnson said Monday.

“If we have call takers working 16 hours a day, people are gonna get burned out. They’re gonna start making mistakes. It’s gonna put public safety in danger. They’ll end up paying more in overtime and in lawsuits” than they would have in salaries.

Sposato said he doesn’t buy the mayor’s office’s argument that paying overtime to a leaner staff of dispatchers would be “less expensive than having a full-time staff person” who is not needed year-round.

Not when dispatchers are already stretched so thin, some of them are doubling their annual salaries in overtime.

“You’re playing with fire there. You know what happens when you play with fire? You get burned,” Sposato said. “People are furious all the time about being put on hold. We have a lot of problems with 911 services, through no fault of dispatchers. I don’t want to cut dispatchers. I don’t think that’s the place to cut. It would lead to an increase in response times.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) argued that 911 dispatchers “get burned out just like air traffic controllers. And if they make one mistake, it can be deadly.” Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) called the 911 center “one of the many places not to cut.”

Ald. John Arena (45th) noted that front-line workers have been “cut back to skeleton levels” in tree trimming, street and alley light repairs and he would hate to see similar cuts impact the 911 center.

“A full-time employee with benefits and pension can cost more [than] paying overtime to one employee, but what’s the burn-out rate? That’s an intense job. We have to look at that. I want to know how are we gonna deliver services in a critical area like that when they’re making this many cuts,” Arena said.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Sunday that Emanuel’s plan to lay off more than 500 city employees and eliminate 776 vacancies could impact the 911 center in a way that could slow response times or stretch call takers to the limit.

In an e-mail response to the Chicago Sun-Times, Emanuel’s communications director Chris Mather argued that it was “completely speculative and incorrect” for the union to suggest that layoffs would trigger an increase in response times to 911 calls.

The operations floor has already been operating with vacant positions unfilled and “continues to maintain the highest level of efficiency,” she said.

“Residents can still expect a fast response followed by a quick dispatch of resources,” Mather said, noting that the city has “budgeted for any possible increase in overtime.”

In 2009, more than 60 operators at the 911 center each earned more than $20,000 in overtime pay. One racked up $90,552 in overtime, more than his $77,784 annual salary.