Friday, June 9, 2006
Dispatch seeks to reduce overtime, improve retention
It is hoped that a reorganization of the Communications Department this summer will help solve a coverage and turnover problem that for several years has raised costs and had the potential to affect public safety. The department, which reports to both the fire and police chiefs, is responsible for receiving emergency calls, determining who needs to respond, and relaying accurate information to emergency personnel. According to Fire Chief Dave Flannery, in recent years a staffing model which did not provide adequate in-department redundancy has resulted in significant cost overruns each year and contributed to low employee retention rates of 41%, where 82% would be expected.
Overtime means overruns
"Since I became chief there have been $10,000 to $15,000 overruns in the communications department every year," says Flannery. "Turnover is the main issue." A report from the Association of Public Communications Officers (APCO) concludes that a dispatch operation with a small staff such as Carlisle's should have retention rates of 82% "and it is 41% here." Turnover is expensive in several respects, but the greatest impact occurs when in-house resources are unavailable and the communications department must call on police overtime, which at $40 to $50 per hour is four times as expensive.
Under the current staffing plan, the communications department has been made up of three full-timers and two part-timers. When a shift is open due to an employee loss, existing staff are called on to cover. However, this past year the department faced not only the loss of an employee through attrition, but an employee on long-term medical leave until July. "The model for staffing doesn't take care of two out," says Flannery. The only recourse was to call on police overtime, resulting in a $16,000 departmental budget overage for 2006. "It adds up very quickly."
Replacing an employee can take months. Advertisements for the opening this past year initially generated no responses. Even when an employee is on-board it is six or seven weeks before training is completed. The state requires all dispatchers to be certified, and additional training is required on Carlisle's system. All police officers are certified as dispatchers.
Inexperience leads to errors
Other turnover costs are harder to quantify. "Errors are big" when they occur in this department, says Flannery, and inexperienced staff can make mistakes. In several instances delays have occurred because a new employee did not get it right, although Flannery is quick to note that, thankfully, "there have been no major consequences."
Another cost is in administration. Says Flannery, "I spend more time on the problems of communications than on fire" and that's true of "(Police) Chief Sullivan as well." Additionally, pressure on staff to take extra shifts feeds the attrition spiral as "people burnout and feel they have no control over their lives."
Reorganization provides depth
Recognizing the need to build staffing, Flannery for several years proposed a staffing plan which was finally adopted for FY07 and will go into effect in July. The plan, which is similar to one in place at the police department, calls for five full time dispatchers, four to cover all shifts, and one in reserve. The shift to full-time staff should help reduce turnover as "part-timers don't stay as long." In addition it will greatly reduce or eliminate the need to fall back on the police department for coverage. The first year cost of the program will add about $30,000 to the budget, but if the program is successful, that cost should be offset long-term by reduced costs in overtime and hiring.
Currently the department is still under pressure with one experienced full-timer, a dispatcher on medical leave, another about to go on medical leave (hopefully after the first leave-taker returns), and a new employee who just completed training and will start next week. The department is advertising for another full-timer and retains the two part-timers for the time being, although they will eventually be replaced by a full-time person. "We hope in July to be up to four full- time with the goal of five." Flannery notes that new hires will work rotating shifts to ensure everyone is fully trained to handle the "active slots."
Other steps are being taken to reduce turnover. Flannery and Police Chief Sullivan will be looking this year at issues raised by the APCO report, including pay, benefits, working conditions, and out-dated equipment. But Flannery believes the staff reorganization is a very good first step, "We now have the capacity to cover within existing staff without overtime and without burning people out. I feel we're on the right track" to providing the long-term staffing that will enhance speedy and accurate relaying of emergency information to the town police and fire departments.
© 2006 The