911 operators decry work conditions Dispatchers say center is unhealthy, computers unreliable

'Fighting a no-win battle'

Administrators reply that fixes are slated, complaints unjustified

November 03, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Frustrated by what they term poor working conditions, a majority of Howard County's 911 operators are demanding that the county fix several problems that they say could jeopardize the safety of the county's 231,000 residents.

The International Union of Police Associations Local 107, which includes 26 of 47 eligible dispatchers in the county, asserts that a computer system ceased functioning for almost eight hours two weeks ago. The union also complains that the ventilation system at the communications center in the basement of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City is so poor many operators become sick.

"We are the core of the county when everyone else goes home at 5 p.m.," said Ronald Miner, a 911 operator in the county for nine years and president of the union. "But we are not treated like we should be."

Added second-year dispatcher Max Crago: "I wish [county officials] would think that 911 is important, because unless they've been in our shoes, they will never understand."

Miner said if the union's concerns are not met, it will organize a public rally during the first week of December.

County officials say that the county has plans to rectify the situation, including replacing the computer system and moving the communications center to a new venue.

"Working conditions are good, and at every inquiry from the employees, the problem is dealt with and investigated in a timely fashion," said Richard Biggs, director of the Technology and Communication Services Department, which oversees the 911 operators. "I find it a little hard to swallow the woe-is-me attitude."

Local 107 has another beef with the county, which rejected the union's application for recognition Oct. 8 because it did not provide all the information required by the county.

The county code permits prospective unions to apply for certification only in September. Because Local 107's application was returned to the union after the Sept. 30 deadline, the union must wait until next September to reapply, said Miner.

"I felt that if there had been any problems, they would have notified us in time to correct them, but they didn't," Miner said. "It's a common practice for the county to wait until the last minute."

But Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer, denied that the county intentionally delays reviewing union applications for certification.

"It's a pretty complicated process, and we have to make sure that we take a careful look at it," Sanudo said. "We don't want to take it lightly."

Union members said problems at the communications center began when the dispatchers for fire, police and rescue were consolidated in 1991 and transferred to the basement of the George Howard Building.

Operators contend that the basement is too cramped. They also note that because the basement has no windows and a poor ventilation system, the air is stale.

"One person may come in with a cold, and it will go through all of us," Miner said. "And when they spray for insects, the chemicals stay down there for a long time."

Kim Grap, the union's vice president and recording secretary, added that the center is filled with broken chairs and that operators are using headsets that do not function properly.

Union members said the biggest problem is the aging computer system. Crago said operators have disassembled broken computers to find parts for the remaining computers.

The system crashed Oct. 19 from 7: 30 p.m. to 3 a.m., union members said. Miner said dispatchers had to write out calls, NTC resulting in a 45-second lag in response times.

"When you're talking about a person not breathing or a building on fire or someone in a car accident, that 45 seconds is a lot of time," Miner said. He said the computer system had not crashed before.

Morale among the operators is disturbingly low, Grap said.

"Right now, it seems like we're fighting a no-win battle," said Grap, a Carroll County resident and a Howard dispatcher for eight years. "The secretaries have better systems than us."

Union members also want the county to grant them compensatory time for the full 12 hours they work on holidays. But Biggs said the county code for all employees allows only eight hours of compensatory time.

Biggs said tests conducted by safety and air quality officials show that dust and toxin levels in the basement center are well below the hazardous level. He also noted that because the basement was built as a bomb shelter with 48-inch-thick walls, it's nearly impossible to install windows.

Biggs said county officials are considering moving the communications center when the county completes the purchase of the Allied Signal building in Columbia. The center could either move to the Allied Signal building or occupy space vacated by another department that moves to the building.

Biggs also said several vendors have been contacted about replacing the computer system before 2000.

John Hampton, bureau chief of the communications center, said the department has about $200,000 available each year for upgrading the system.

Biggs said operators are drilled regularly on emergencies such as the incident Oct. 19.

"These are standard operating procedures that need to be in place because machines are machines," Biggs said. "The contingency plan worked as planned."

Biggs said he is puzzled by some of the complaints.

"We are doing the best we can with what we have," Biggs said. "Your mental attitude might color the way you perceive work and how you are treated. It's hard to say why these folks are reacting the way they're reacting."

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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