Growing pains at Consolidated Dispatch Center

? Mandatory overtime places stress on dispatch staff. Center management says it's working hard to incorporate Elmwood Park into expanded operation.

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Since its inception in May, 2002, the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center was designed to reap the benefits of economies and efficiencies of scale. Since then the modern police and fire telecommunications center has been credited with providing improved services to both citizens and public safety professionals in Oak Park and River Forest. This April 13, the Village of Elmwood Park joined the WSCDC for those same reasons.

That planned growth is now said by some to be at the root of a staffing problem. The demands of training all the Elmwood Park dispatchers, some say, is proving to be a slow going process.

Certain dispatchers, say some individuals who asked to remain anonymous, are struggling to adapt to the faster pace and more intense high tech environment at the WSCDC. That in turn has led to staffing shortages and greatly increased overtime for qualified staff.

The WSCDC, they say has never been fully staffed since April 13.

One source termed the ongoing changeover as a case of "culture shock."

However, Greg Riddle, who has served as the WSCDC's director since the summer before it went on line in May, 2002, termed that characterization "inappropriate," and said this isn't the first time the center has been understaffed.

"It's a matter of training," countered Riddle, a 30-year fire service veteran who retired as deputy fire chief in Elk Grove Village before assuming the WSCDC job. "Elmwood Park [operators] are fully trained. But they're used to handling a single police and a single fire department. [WSCDC] is a much faster-paced environment."

Riddle said Tuesday that the WSCDC currently has three dispatchers still in training and another three positions waiting to be filled.

That backlog is due largely to limited certified training staff at the WSCDC, he said, not solely the Elmwood Park transition.

"We're looking to hire off the existing list by the middle of this month," said Riddle.

He couldn't say how much additional overtime the dispatch center has been experiencing the past two months. But he did say this isn't the first time he's had to deal with such a situation.

"When we first started out [in 2002], we had 21 slots, and we were seven short," he said. All of that shortage, he added, stemmed from a staffing shortage in the 15 positions coming over from the Oak Park department.

Riddle said five of six original Elmwood Park dispatchers qualified this spring to transfer in to the WSCDC, and two of those individuals have since become fully qualified to work there.

"We're working on the others," he said.

"The Elmwood Park people came over with an inability to do all the [required] jobs," Riddle said. The basic skill sets which all formally scheduled WSCDC staff are required to master include call-taking (which includes Emergency Medical Dispatch training, or EMD), fire dispatching for all three municipalities, Elmwood Park police dispatching, and Oak Park and River Forest police dispatching. EMD training, which was added when the WSCDC came into being, qualifies a telecommunicator to provide life-sustaining instructions to a person in need of help.

Besides new technology, former Elmwood Park dispatchers must contend with a far greater number of police officers on the street, and must learn the details of a greatly enlarged geographic area, as well as master EMD.

Riddle emphasized that no one specializes; over the course of an 8-hour shift, each dispatcher must handle all four basic tasks. There are two call-takers each shift.

There's also the increased demands placed on scheduling due simply to the addition of the Elmwood Park responsibilities. Said Riddle, "We used to have four [dispatcher] positions. We now have five."

"They have to adjust to a greater number of and frequency of calls, and to the number of units dealing with our center." The Oak Park Police Department, Riddle noted, has more officers on patrol at any given time than River Forest and Elmwood Park combined.

Acquiring all the required skills, Riddle said, usually takes about 20 weeks of training, though he stresses that that's an average.

"Some people can do it faster than others," he said.

Mandatory overtime

As for mandatory overtime, Riddle said that while he understands concerns about its effects, he said that it's a fact of life at WSCDC for dispatchers.

"This is an emergency operation," Riddle said. "They're told repeatedly that they can't expect that after eight hours, they're going home. There's no guarantee."

Riddle acknowledged that working a 16-hour shift is stressful, and insisted that WSCDC management makes an effort to mitigate the demands.

"We don't think that's best for our employees, and we try to avoid that."

The increase in overtime was the result of several factors, he said, not just the training demands of bringing a third municipality into the WSCDC fold.

"This is summer, and with vacations, there are fewer people available."

Riddle said that the training is progressing, and that everything will work out over time. WSCDC observers agree with that assessment, with one major caveat.

"It'll work," said one source. "[But] it'll take a lot longer than anyone thought it would."

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