WEST CHESTER – The Chester County Department of Emergency Services 911 center is experiencing an unprecedented loss of emergency dispatchers that has left a significant void in the county’s public safety system and forced the county to scramble to fill the slots left vacant over the last few months. .
Since January, a total of 13 telecoms – the 911 staff who take emergency and non-emergency calls from the public and then dispatch police, fire or paramedics to deal with the situation – most with a status of high level, left county employment . During the same period, only seven new employees were hired.
This situation, according to members of the county’s first responder community, has left emergency personnel on the street and in the dispatch room concerned about the safety of people in the police patrol car, fire truck or the ambulance, as well as those they serve.
“It puts lives at risk,” said a person with direct knowledge of the loss of 911 personnel.
On Friday, a county spokeswoman said of the 72 full-time positions at the 911 Center, there are currently 22 vacancies, an increase of two from earlier this month. A decision was recently made to reverse a three-year-old policy within the department to forego the use of part-time dispatchers and allow former full-time employees to return and work part-time to fill shortcomings.
“These employees have tremendous knowledge and experience, and we’re excited to have them back,” spokeswoman Rebecca Brain said.
“Ultimately my experience has been over the past three weeks that I’ve found a resilient, passionate and dedicated set of people who care about helping people,” said County Administrator Bobby Kagel, who took over the daily supervision of the Department of Emergency Services temporarily. “And we’re doing everything we can to get them the help they need.”
There’s always turnover in the 911 Center, Kagel said, with older, more experienced dispatchers being replaced by those right behind them on the seniority ladder. The current situation, however, has left a rift between senior and junior executives he has never witnessed before, he said.
Kagel, who served as DES director from 2014 to 2018 and has more than two decades of county emergency management experience, said he personally reached out to “good qualified people who have chosen to retire. and to leave (the center), for whatever reasons there may be. I am overwhelmed by the response from these people.
But the environment they enter is one where staff morale is low, and which has contributed to the exodus of telecommunications, the soul of the center. People interviewed by the MediaNews Group over the past three weeks blamed poor morale at the feet of DES leadership and an atmosphere of criticism and mistrust.
“They don’t care about the employees,” said a former telecommunications worker, Holly Drumeler, who left the department in September after working there for 25 years. “There are never any positive comments, only derogatory comments. Whenever there was a mistake, it was the fault of the person at the 9-1-1 center. There was no accountability among The direction.
“I don’t think they realize how many problems there are,” said another telecom operator, who left the center this year after more than a decade on the job, and who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely. conditions that caused him to leave.
“There has been no positive feedback,” the person said. “It was a joke. The feeling of having to juggle things 12 hours a day also really took a toll on morale. People just started jumping ship. Since I was there I had never seen nothing like it.
Concerns about how the center was run were “swept under the rug”, Drumeler said. “Everything would just disappear.”
The other dispatcher also said there were significant problems with the way the 911 center was run, with strange training techniques, a lack of proper supervision of inexperienced callers, and attempts to usurp the authority of the police on emergency calls.
“They prioritized quantity over quality. You quickly saw a drop in production and there were a lot of mistakes,” the person said. “Inexperienced people have been placed in slots where they should not have been placed.”
Kagel said that since returning to DES on May 3, he had listened to the staff there and heard their concerns about the perceived lack of support from management. “We have taken steps to resolve this issue,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “I believe some of the things we’ve done have improved the morale there, but it will take a long time to see lasting results.
“The dedication and passion is still there,” among the staff still serving, he said. “That’s ultimately what will lead to success. If it’s not for them in there, we have nothing. Nothing.”
The problems at DES came to light this month when news surfaced that DES Director Michael Murphy was no longer employed by the county. Brain said he resigned from the position he had held since Kagel’s departure, but gave no reason for the sudden decision. She and Kagel declined to discuss the situation, citing county policy not to comment on personnel matters.
Murphy was just one of the department officials responsible for lowering morale, said Drumeler and others interviewed for this article. Also named were former 9-1-1 center supervisor Ellen Pittman and operations manager George “Beau” Crowding.
Murphy was questioned about the situation by phone last week and the week before. Pittman did not return phone calls seeking comment, while Crowding could not be reached for comment.
The 23-year-old DES veteran, Murphy, dismissed the idea that his management style was contributing to the loss of morale at the 9-1-1 center, where he previously served as a platoon leader.
“I totally disagree with that,” he said. “I don’t think what you’re hearing is accurate. My management objective was recruitment, retention and improving morale. Every decision I made was for staff improvement (DES).
He said any issues would have come from before he took office and would have been compounded by the unique challenges DES has faced over the past two years: the stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, both at work and at home for employees. ; a series of weather events that strained the county’s emergency structure; and the effects of “the big quit” where staff felt pressured to quit their jobs for better pay and fewer challenges.
Addressing COVID issues specifically, Murphy said in an email that he “made tough decisions to keep all of our employees and their families healthy and safe during COVID.
“The 911 center is a mission critical operation,” he wrote. “We have never had an outbreak and had the lowest COVID count of any regional 9-1-1 center. However, I understand that being isolated from the rest of the department and not getting the face-to-face interactions and support they were used to has an impact on morale.
“Hard decisions to keep people safe is something I would do again. We had countless employees including 911 staff, thank you me and our team for all that was done,” he said. “We saved lives — that’s what we do and why we’re here. Despite his admiration for DES and his pride in his accomplishments, Murphy declined to discuss his reason for leaving, saying he “legally cannot comment.”
“There’s not much I can talk about regarding my separation from the county,” he said. “I just want to make sure (people know) that I have dedicated 23 years of service to the county and the community. I don’t want to go into the details of what my separation looks like.
Murphy also declined to discuss details of his relationship with Tiffany Sowers, the county’s former human resources director, who abruptly quit her job on the same day as him, May 2.
Drumeler and the dispatcher who left this year said in interviews that there was a perception at the 9-1-1 center that Murphy and Sowers had developed a personal relationship with each other that created a barrier. resolving staff concerns.
During exit interviews, departing employees complained that they did not feel comfortable raising concerns about working conditions in the center to human resources because of the relationship between the two managers. service, Drumeler said.
“It was about ‘HR’ being in our pocket,” said the other dispatcher. “We can’t complain to them.
Drumeler was candid in acknowledging that she and Murphy had a personal relationship when they both worked at the 911 Center. But she said her comments were not intended to settle scores with him. “It’s not a personal attack,” she said. “I do it (speak) for the people who still work there.”
Sowers, who was hired to head the county’s human resources department two years ago and last month announced a major overhaul of the county’s pay system, could not be reached for comment. As with Murphy, county officials would not comment on her departure other than to say she resigned effective immediately.
Asked about his relationship with Sowers, Murphy declined to elaborate and said much of what was said was “rumor”.
“I’m not going to comment on personal relationships,” he said. “I’ve made a number of friendships in the county and in the department, and sometimes they’re male friends and sometimes female friends. Sometimes people can’t help but spread rumours.
Kagel said he couldn’t give a timeline on when the department would close the gaps created by the recent exodus, but hoped it could be accomplished within the next six months. Carriers cannot simply be hired on Monday and placed behind a call desk or dispatch unit on Tuesday; significant training is required to bring them up to standard. And then there’s the salary, which, despite being increased under the county’s new compensation plan, still lags behind other neighboring counties and states.
But he sought to reassure county residents that their safety and that of emergency responders were not at risk.
“The reason this public safety has not been compromised is because of the men and women of this department,” he said.
To contact editor Michael P. Rellahan, call 610-696-1544.