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Residency requirements for county 911 operators could change under new ordinance

Keith Srakocic

Allegheny County Council will consider lifting residency requirements for workers and supervisors at the county 911 center.

Under current county law, people who accept jobs with Allegheny County must become a resident of the county within one year. At a meeting on Wednesday, the council committee on public safety voted to recommend an ordinance that would exempt 911 call-takers, dispatchers and shift commanders from that residency requirement.

If council passes the ordinance, county telecommunications workers would join the few county employees who hold high-stress jobs that are not subject to the residency requirement. Registered nurses and licensed practical nurses at the county’s John J. Kane Regional Centers and all health care personnel at the Allegheny County Jail also do not have to live in the county.

County and union administrators said the change would be a welcome development for overworked 911 operators.

Allegheny County Manager William McKain said local operators field a total of 1.5 million calls per year, with an average of about 4,000 calls per day.

Employees at the Allegheny County 911 Center, which dispatches police, fire and paramedic services, have faced long working hours and staffing shortages made worse by the pandemic. When there are not enough workers to relieve them, operators may be required to work 12 to 16 hours a day..

“We have a staffing crisis,” said Rick Grejda, a business agent with SEIU Local 668, which represents the county’s 911 operators. He noted that the call center has nearly 70 open positions that need to be filled “as soon as possible.”

“It’s a nationwide problem, recruiting these types of workers,” McKain said. “It’s a stressful job.”

The county has boosted recruiting efforts in the past, but McKain and Grejda said they hope eliminating the residency requirement will help attract interested candidates who don’t want to make the move to Allegheny County.

“That’s going to greatly benefit everyone involved, most importantly the people that we serve, but also the folks that I represent,” Grejda said. “No one can do this job 12 to 16 hours a day. It’s not sustainable. We need relief.”

Shift commanders will also be exempt from residency requirements if the ordinance is passed, but Grejda said he doesn’t believe there is a need to do that.

“The most recent [shift commander] posting had two positions, with over 36 well-qualified current employees who are currently living in Allegheny County apply,” he said. “They bring a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, they’re educated, they know these communities. We don’t think we need to hire shift commanders from outside Allegheny County to fill these seats.”

McKain said Chief Fire Marshal Matthew Brown recommended including shift commanders in the exemption “in case we do need to recruit,” but he added that existing telecommunications officers would get “every preference . . . when the shift commander position does come available.”

“The ones we have filled often come, if not always, from the rank-and-file,” McKain said.

“We strongly support the removal of residency requirements for Allegheny County 911 call-takers and dispatchers, a provision we advocated for during our most recent contract negotiations with the county,” SEIU Local 668 president Steve Catanese said in a statement.

“Removing this requirement will be a positive step towards alleviating staffing shortages that have [led] to worker stress, burnout, and turnover, and ensuring the safety of the Allegheny County community," he said. "However, much must continue to be done to support the workers at Allegheny County Emergency Services.”

Council member DeWitt Walton, one of the bill’s sponsors, stressed the importance of acting quickly to relieve the overburdened telecommunications officers.

“We have to find a solution because the safety of Allegheny County residents can be put at risk. In that critical position, there is no margin for error. You can’t make one mistake. Somebody’s life might be at risk by not doing it right and not doing it in a timely manner,” he said. “It is critical that we make a decision to try to mitigate some of this.”

The full council must vote on the ordinance before it becomes law.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at