Overtime up, morale down at police/fire dispatch center

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By BILL DWYER

Unpopular mandatory overtime shifts continue to soar at the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center with staffers on course to work 50 percent more such shifts than a year ago. Meanwhile, two of five police dispatchers inherited in the April merger of Elmwood Park into the Oak Park and River Forest police and fire dispatch center resigned last week after failing to make adequate progress to work independently.

Some disgruntled staff members blame the two top managers of the three-year-old operation for failing to hold staff accountable for mistakes and for inadequate hiring.

However, the dispatch center management and Oak Park Village Manager Carl Swenson, who is part of a board that oversees the operation, say that any problems are merely part of an anticipated process of adaptation to ongoing changes at the dispatch center.

Headquartered at the River Forest Fire Department, the WSCDC is responsible for police, fire and emergency medical dispatching for the municipalities of Oak Park, River Forest, and, since April 13, Elmwood Park.

Morale and discipline problems and procedural mistakes continue, according to sources at the center. While those criticisms are mainly anonymous, they are supported in materials sent to Wednesday Journal or acquired through Freedom of Information requests. They are also frequently confirmed in various WSCDC internal documents.

Wednesday Journal reported on alleged problems at the center in its June 22 issue.

In late July the Journal was copied on an unsigned letter sent to the village presidents of Oak Park, River Forest and Elmwood Park, as well as Trustee Robert Milstein. That letter has since been forwarded to a number of key administrative and advisory personnel in Oak Park and River Forest government.

The letter accuses WSCDC Executive Director Greg Riddle and Deputy Director Ron Gross of "Blatant mismanagement" and "hiding serious safety issues," that include serious dispatching mistakes, chronic understaffing and a failure to address ongoing issues that have seriously impacted morale there.

"Riddle and Gross are playing a shell game with public safety," the anonymous writer tells the village officials, "and unless you act, someone will pay with their life."

Swenson said that he and the village administrators of River Forest and Elmwood Park, who comprise the supervisory committee overseeing WSCDC management, have addressed the contents of the letter with Riddle, despite the fact that it's anonymous.

"The three managers have looked over the accusations and gotten a report from (Riddle)," said Swenson.

"Like most of these (anonymous) letters, you read them with an ounce of skepticism and an ounce of validity," said Milstein, who added that he plans to ask a number of questions regarding the latter "at the appropriate time" in the near future.

"I don't comment on anonymous letters," Riddle said Monday. He did, however, respond to a number of questions from Wednesday Journal raised by that letter and other materials.

Two staff members who have spoken to the Journal in past months, but who have asked not to be named, paint a picture of unprepared and ineffective management at the dispatch center, and pointedly criticize some of their fellow dispatcher's ability to adequately handle the dispatch load for which it is currently is responsible. In addition the Journal has received several internal memos from the dispatch center via mail, as well as copies of six newsletters. On August 1 the Journal filed Freedom of Information requests for additional information from the center.

The letter writer contends that little progress has been made on issues now three years old.

"For the past three years the same operational issues and concerns have been discussed," the letter writer states. "As of now, three years later, the same issues and concerns are being brought up."

The most serious problem, the critics contend, is mandatory overtime, and mandatory overtime, they say, stems from inadequate planning by management.

The situation at the WSCDC appears to not be a result just of the recent expansion. WSCDC Deputy Director Ron Gross refers to the stress overtime is placing on the center's staff several times in employee newsletters the Journal has obtained. In the center's Sept./Oct. 2003 newsletter, under the headline "Tough Times!!", Gross writes, "It's no secret that this year has been tough staffing wise. Everyone is frustrated, angry and fatigued because of the long hours. It's also putting everybody on edge." In the March/April/May, 2005 newsletter, Gross acknowledges "being so busy, frustrated and stressed out, I even thought about not doing one (this month)."

Part of the alleged low morale at the WSCDC, said both sources, is due to the marked increase in mandatory overtime. Mandatory overtime is extra shift work required when management cannot fill its minimum staffing levels through voluntary "call backs."

A review of the center's "Anticipated Call Back" logs indicates that the WSCDC has endured significant struggles with filling those shift requirements. In 2004, the center asked for voluntary call backs to fill 264 eight hour work shifts. According to Riddle, those anticipated open shifts are primarily caused by staff vacations.

However, his anonymous critics contend they have less to do with vacations and more to do with being chronically understaffed.

"It's not vacation," said one caller. "We don't have enough people."

In fact, through the first seven months of 2005, the center has already requested volunteers for 236 call back shifts, a pace that, if continued, would be a roughly a 50 percent increase over last year.

There is some indication that the addition of Elmwood Park has caused an increase in mandatory overtime shifts. In the three months preceding the center absorbing the Elmwood Park operation, there were 19 mandatory overtime shifts. Since then, through the end of July, dispatchers have been required to work 81 mandatory overtime shifts of up to eight additional hours.

Particularly stressful, said both callers and the letter writer, are periods where dispatchers are faced with consistent demands for overtime. In one 19 day period between April 25 and May 13, dispatchers worked 47 overtime shifts. And in the nine days between May 23 and May 31 they worked 31 overtime shifts.

Riddle doesn't deny that overtime?#34;particularly mandatory overtime?#34;is a problem, and a demand he'd prefer not to place on his staff. But he insisted that the real problem is excessive sick leave.

"Most mandatory overtime is caused when someone calls in sick," he said. "We know what our minimum (staffing requirements) are," said Riddle. "We don't schedule less than the minimum. Dispatchers, he said, must call in no later than two hours before their shift begins to request sick time. That, said Riddle, leaves little time to adjust staffing.

"With only two hours notice, that's probably going to create a mandatory (overtime requirement)."

In any event, Riddle said, individuals seeking employment as a dispatcher are repeatedly told that the job requires certain sacrifices, including working odd and extended hours when needed.

Gross reiterated that point in one newsletter, writing "?if you're looking for 9-5. Monday through Friday, this is not the job for you."

However, the letter writer also places the blame for that sick time squarely on Riddle and Gross, writing that mandatory shifts are the direct result of the "absurd amount of sick time useage in the center for the past three years, yes three years of excessive sick time useage that has never been addressed until recently with an ambiguous policy."

The letter goes on to note that the overtime has cost taxpayers "over $40,000."

Riddle responded that while the WSCDC is over its overtime budget by $26,580 as of June 30, it is under its budget for regular payroll by $135,350 over that same period.

 

Unfair discipline?

Another sore point is the application of discipline. One caller said that the wrong people are being disciplined. Three of four dispatchers who have "a lot of time on the job," said the caller, have recently been disciplined. The July letter further states that one employee resigned recently after being made a "scapegoat" for a situation?#34;one of many that it contends have occurred.

Riddle denied a Wednesday Journal FOIA request seeking information on WSCDC disciplinary actions taken between Jan. 1, 2004 and July 30, 2005, citing law that exempts employees personnel files and related information.

"Discipline decisions are between me and the employee involved," he said Monday.

Oak Park's Swenson said Monday that some tension is inevitable when working environments change, and that such problems were anticipated.

"Blending three (dispatch) staffs, this was something everyone was aware would be an issue," said Swenson. "Greg Riddle is working through that currently."

As for the dispatchers coming over from Elmwood Park, Swenson said, "Some can assimilate change at a rate greater than others."

Riddle said that of the five Elmwood Park dispatchers who passed testing and were hired to train at WSCDC last spring, two have completed training relatively quickly and are on the center's work schedule, and a third is due to finish training later this month. Two others resigned last week.

However, morale, performance and general attitude apparently wasn't good just prior to the Elmwood Park expansion. In a memo dated April 6, 2005, Gross writes to staff, "It has come to my attention that more and more personnel are dispatching the incorrect agency to call for service. While some immediately admit their mistakes and are being held accountable, others have an 'Oh, well, oops' attitude, and the error is never reported. This is completely unacceptable."

Whatever the cause of the overall situation at the WSCDC, morale and performance has clearly suffered. Towards the end of one 2005 newsletter, Gross tells WSCDC employees, "Over the past few weeks I have seen performance deteriorate and professionalism a distant memory. Well, this changes immediately. I understand people make mistakes, but repeating the same mistakes gives the perception that someone doesn't care, and that's dangerous."

Again using sports imagery, "Gregg is the manager, and I am the coach. Every employee must decide right at this moment if they want to play for the WSCDC team or not."

Things still appeared to be flat in the June/July, 2005 newsletter. "There is no longer any room on our team for this type of negative thinking," Gross writes. "Please understand," he writes several paragraphs later, "that I will aggressively take those steps necessary to ensure that attitude and behavior does not infect our 'body.'"

Both anonymous dispatchers contend that any real discipline is unlikely, however.

"(Gross) keeps harping on the same thing over and over again, instead of taking some kind of action," said one caller. "There's no consistency. There's a lot of threats, but they don't go after the people (Riddle) keeps."

In general, police officials speaking off the record recently expressed qualified confidence in the dispatch center and were supportive of what they characterized as a difficult, stressful job.

"I don't think most people realize how stressful police and fire dispatching is," said one police official.

WSCDC management has clearly been stung by the more barbed and public criticism of its operation. "WSCDC stands for 'We still can't dispatch correctly," states a headline in the March/April/May, 2005 newsletter. "When I first heard that catchy little phrase for the first time, I wanted to lash out, and I wanted to scream," Gross writes. "I said, oh, no, they're not talking about me; they're talking about only a few people."

Gross goes on to use a sports team analogy to attempt to rally his workers, noting that the WSCDC will "succeed or fail together."

If, he writes, "after additional training or coaching players can't perform adequately, "they get cut from the team."

Towards the end of that newsletter Gross states "The only way to truly improve the perception of our agency and its personnel is to improve the performance that has eroded the trust that many responders have in our abilities. Unfortunately there have been many instances in the last few months that have compromised that trust."

Told of the "eroded trust" comment, one police source echoed the comments of other police officials interviewed, saying "We haven't lost trust in them. 'Annoyance' is a better, more accurate term." Everyone, the official added, makes mistakes.

That same official said that the problems at the center stem from "personalities and attitudes" more than anything else.

Riddle said that he and Gross are taking strong action to bring staffing up to full strength.

"Technically we're at 24 (fully qualified dispatchers)" said Riddle.

Riddle and Gross were at the Oak Park village hall last Saturday for an orientation session with dispatch candidates. The response, Riddle said, was strong, with 105 people present. Typing tests are being conducted at the WSCDC this week. Over the next two weeks Riddle said he plans to schedule interviews and psychological tests for applicants, and decide on three new hires by early September. If all goes as planned, those three new dispatchers will be fully qualified sometime in January, bringing the center up to its full authorized strength of 27 telecommunicators.

Riddle said that the WSCDC is a "good operation staffed," by and large, with committed, effective people.

"We've got a lot of good employees here," he said. "The majority are committed to doing this job."

Riddle's anonymous critics insist that they're also committed to doing that job well, but that Riddle and his management team are being too soft on substandard performance by some dispatchers.

"They're into that 'kinder, gentler' thing," said one caller of Riddle and Gross's management style. "But sometimes you need to put your foot down."

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