Chief limits officers' 911 calls

Order is intended to cut workload on center's operators

Understaffing alleged

January 21, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

To reduce distractions in Anne Arundel County's 911 center, police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan has ordered officers to limit the types of radio and telephone calls they make to emergency dispatchers.

The chief's directive, issued last week, also reduces the number of radio channels that 911 operators are required to monitor. The orders were handed down as part of a review of the communications center that began in August when a 911 call about a fatal carjacking was botched.

Although Shanahan said the call was mishandled because of "human error," the chief ordered a review of the 911 center's staffing, equipment and operating procedures. The chief's most recent directive is aimed at reducing nonemergency calls made to the communications center by officers.

Officers are being told not to ask 911 operators for home telephone numbers of staff and not to ask operators to call towing companies in nonemergency situations.

"Ancillary incoming telephone calls handled by the dispatchers may distract, divert or adversely affect their ability to perform their duties at optimum levels," Shanahan wrote in the order, effective Thursday.

The directive also means officers will be calling dispatchers on fewer radio channels.

"This way their attention stays focused on handling emergency calls," said Lt. Joseph E. Jordan, a county police spokesman. "Officer and public safety are their primary concern."

Some officers and union officials representing dispatchers charge that the directive masks what they say is the real issue: the number of staff. Even with fewer administrative calls, they say, operators will remain overworked.

"The real problem won't be solved until they increase the number of positions, fill vacancies and increase the pay," said Mike Akers, president of Local 582 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the county's 911 operators.

Last month, department officials asked officers with dispatch experience to work overtime to reduce the load on operators. From July to December, operators worked more than 7,200 hours of overtime.

The department is working to recruit operators for seven vacant positions, Jordan said.

Officials said a recent staffing analysis showed a need for more 911 operators, as the number of calls to the center has increased 9 percent, from 593,853 in 2000 to 650,377 last year.

In addition to a proposed pay increase, Jordan said, the department will likely ask for more positions to be funded in the next county budget.

AFSCME is appealing Shana han's decision to fire two 911 dispatchers blamed for failing to relay information to officers about the assault Aug. 8 on Yvette A. Beakes, a Glen Burnie pharmacist who was found shot to death in Baltimore.

But union officials say the call wasn't processed correctly because of a computer glitch -- one of many alleged problems in what they describe as an understaffed, poorly equipped 911 center.

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