It’s reasonable to expect that, when calling 911, the person on the other end of the line is alert, well rested, and not overworked.
But Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said she’s concerned that the county’s 9-1-1 center employees are racking up too much overtime, leading to escalated costs and risks to public safety.
According to a recent audit, the center spent more than $2 million on overtime costs last year “as a result of chronic understaffing, high turnover, and insufficient cross-training.” More than three quarters of that money was spent on overtime for call takers and dispatchers.
“The overtime costs are continuing. The trend is not changing,” Wagner said.
But County Manager William McKain refutes that contention, saying all of Wagner's recommendation have already been implemented or are in the process of being done. McKain says the county promoted 12 part-time dispatchers to full-time in April and have already seen cost savings.
"The first seven (biweekly) pays of this year before we promoted the 12 to full-time the average overtime pay was $21,500," McKain says. "Since we promoted them, the average overtime pay has been $13,000. So we save about $8,500 per pay since they came on. That's about $110,000 in savings."
In her analysis, Wagner compared the cost of fully staffing the 911 center with the cost of continuing to rely on overtime. She said a full-staffed center means there are 46-54 employees working at any given time.
“What we found is that the overtime rate is approximately $6 more an hour than the rate of a full time employee,” Wagner said.
Wagner says there is also the matter of public safety. “Simple human resources management tells us that by having people that are not overworked (and) overburdened, we’re going to have a much better operation, particularly one that’s as important as this is for the public safety of our region.”
However, McKain said they have 216 full-time dispatchers and he believes that's sufficient.
"And we still have a pool of part-time because we want to make sure they have a career path and if there's some emergencies, we can activate them," McKain said. "But to answer your question, I believe we do, but we're always measuring it based on data to see if we have to modify current staffing."
Wagner said she uncovered instances of call center employees working up to 16 hour shifts, and that she suspects the practice grew out of the ongoing funding crisis caused by the decreasing popularity of land lines.
County 911 centers are funded by surcharges applied to both land lines and wireless and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) lines. While fees from land lines go directly to county 911 centers, fees from wireless and VoIP lines go to the state and counties must apply to receive those funds.
Wagner said, while the funding scheme for 911 centers needs to be reconfigured, there are steps Allegheny County can take immediately to save money.
“We were holding the line on hiring full time employees, perhaps thinking that we were saving money by having employees take on overtime to fill that need,” Wagner said.
Wagner estimated that hiring 28 more telecommunications employees would save the county 911 center approximately $50,000-$65,000 annually. That represents a 13 percent increase over the 220 telecommunications employees on staff at the end of December 2013.
“They have claimed that they have moved and are moving in the direction to alleviate some of the excessive overtime, but that’s not something that we at this point are able to independently verify,” Wagner said.
In August, the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County announced that their 911 centers would be merged.
McKain said the county also participates in a group working on updating the funding structure for county 911 centers.
The Allegheny County 911 Center receives 1.25 million calls each year, serves 120 municipalities and dispatches to approximately 200 fired departments, 111 police departments and 56 EMS agencies.