Pa. 911 center cuts out nonemergency tasks for dispatchers amid staffing shortage
A letter sent to all York County fire, EMS and police chiefs stated first responders must perform nonemergency communications tasks themselves until staffing issues are resolved
Liz Evans Scolforo
The York Dispatch, Pa.
YORK COUNTY, Pa. — Ongoing staffing shortages at the York County 911 Center have caused the center's director to reduce the frequency and kinds of nonemergency services that dispatchers have been providing to police, fire and EMS agencies.
The York Dispatch has obtained a copy of a two-page letter dated Sept. 18 that was sent to all York County police chiefs, fire chiefs and EMS officials by 911 Director Matthew Hobson.
"As you are aware, York County 911 is under considerable strain with regard to the limited number of staff that are available," he wrote. "(I)t has become necessary for the 911 center to reduce the demands placed on the current staff by reducing the volume of non-emergency communications it has traditionally provided to public safety agencies."
The goal, Hobson wrote, is to "reduce the frequency and amount of time that our staff spends on the phone or doing tasks other than answering 911 calls and dispatching the appropriate agencies."
Hobson noted in the letter that it's a "significant paradigm change for all involved" — one that's meant to be temporary "and not a new 'normal.'"
It will take effect Oct. 1, according to the letter, and there will be no change in current dispatch policies and procedures.
Hobson did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
Changes include having police officers, fire officials and EMS workers handling nonemergency tasks, such as checking an online county app for the response times they need for reports and having officers run their own checks on vehicles and drivers when officers have access to an in-vehicle computer, according to Hobson's letter.
The changes will require police to call taxis, road crews and public-works crews themselves rather than asking dispatchers to do that, according to the letter, which states that dispatchers will still handle requests for tow trucks.
Dispatchers will continue to alert public utility companies in life-threatening situations, but police and fire officials will have to handle those calls when no emergency exists, the letter states.
Speaking on behalf of the York County Commissioners, county spokesperson Mark Walters said the county understands this will likely inconvenience some public safety agencies, but only for nonemergencies.
"Staffing and retention are ongoing efforts at York County 911. This measure will assist staff in providing essential emergency services," he wrote in an email. "York County has conducted new dispatcher training classes in February, June, August and (has) another coming up in early October."
The 911 Center is budgeted for 66 full-time dispatcher and call-taker positions, plus eight part-time positions, according to Walters.
The center currently has 39 full-time dispatchers and call-takers, six of whom are in training, Walters said, adding that seven of the eight part-time positions are filled.
Police and fire chiefs reached for this article agreed the best way to tackle the 911 Center's staffing problems — which they identify as recruitment and retention — is to work together to find long-term solutions.
York City Fire Chief Chad Deardorff said the change won't have a significant impact on city fire operations.
But as president of the York County Fire Chiefs Association, Deardorff said he's heard other fire chiefs express concerns, especially those serving areas with spotty cellphone service.
While it will change the way fire departments and companies handle things, the changes don't put firefighters in danger, Deardorff said.
Hobson met with York County's fire chiefs on Monday night, according to Deardorff, who described the meeting as amicable. Hobson previously met with York County's police chiefs as well.
"We anticipate coming to them with solutions to help them fix the problem. I'm looking — and other chiefs are looking — to come up with ideas," Deardorff said. "The bottom line is, we need to fix the staffing shortage."
Deardorff admitted it's frustrating that more people aren't applying for open 911 dispatcher positions.
"You're not going to get rich being a dispatcher, but it's a respectable career and they're a very needed part of the emergency response system," he said.
Lower Windsor Township Police Chief Dave Arnold said he and other chiefs want to continue conversations with 911 officials about how to fix the significant staffing shortage by increasing hiring and reducing turnover. He noted that training dispatchers takes time and that fixing the 911 Center's staffing issues will also take time.
"Obviously as police chiefs, we're concerned because we'd like to know there's enough dispatchers and call-takers," he said. "There’s definitely been extra stress on the (911) staff because they don’t have the numbers to fill the trenches, so to speak."
Northern York County Regional Police Chief Dave Lash agreed the issue is one that York County's public safety agencies need to help with.
"The officers of Northern Regional police have been instructed to, when they can ... alleviate pressure on the dispatchers," he said. "I don't see it as overly burdensome on police departments."
York Area Regional Police Chief Tim Damon said he's not yet sure if the changes could amount to a hardship for his officers and said he intends to ask the York County Public Safety Advisory Board to provide chiefs with information about how the center is set up and whether call volumes are being evenly distributed.
"I've had several conversations with Matt (Hobson). I found him to be very receptive to talking about ... issues they have," Damon said, adding that Hobson inherited a longstanding problem that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Step up recruiting?
West York Police Chief Matt Millsaps, also the borough's public safety director, said he believes an aggressive hiring campaign is needed and said he and the borough will pitch in however they can.
Shrewsbury Fire Chief Tony Myers said he's found Hobson to be very capable and said he's confident Hobson can fix the 911 Center's problems.
"These changes aren't going to happen in six months," Myers predicted. "It's going to be over a year until we see a better system because it takes time to train and retrain dispatchers. ... They are in turmoil and are working toward becoming better. We have to be patient."
He and other chiefs said they expect common sense will come into play. For example, if there's a serious storm in York County, dispatchers will be deluged with calls. So asking them to call a utility company for a downed wire or a taxi for a stranded driver would be a hardship for them at that time.
"During normal operational days, they are going to be able to help us out in making notifications," Myers predicted, adding he felt better about the changes after speaking with Hobson at the county fire chiefs' meeting.
"They’re doing their best, and the (first responders in the) field can take a lot of load off the dispatch center," Myers said.
West York Borough Manager Shawn Mauck was deputy director of the 911 Center from 2009 to 2011, he said.
Like Millsaps, Mauck said a full-court press is needed when it comes to recruiting job candidates and noted that there have historically been unfilled positions at the center.
Mauck said the county might consider asking municipalities to advertise open 911 positions on their social media platforms and perhaps work with local high schools to find interested candidates there.
"These seem to be the same questions we faced in 2009, 2010. We were making significant progress. We added positions, reduced overtime," he said. "We understood at that time there needed to be a bigger investment."
Since then, York County paid $750,000 to an outside consultant to identify problems within the 911 Center, rather than asking the people who already know what the issues are — meaning police, fire and EMS officials as well as 911 employees, Mauck said.
"We paid a lot of money as taxpayers to have an outside person telling us what to do," he said. "It’s the same regurgitated ideas we’ve seen in the past, which is troubling to me."
In the spring, York County 911 dispatchers had been working mandatory 60-hour weeks, plus possible overtime.
On Tuesday, Walters said dispatchers are currently working a 48-hour week, followed by a 60-hour week, and alternating back and forth.
©2020 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.)