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Half of Chicago’s 911 operators don’t show up for work on any given day

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Jackson, TN, May 14, 2003. An operator takes a call at the Jackson 911 Dispatch Center. Photo by Mark Wolfe/FEMA News photo.
Jackson, TN, May 14, 2003. An operator takes a call at the Jackson 911 Dispatch Center. Photo by Mark Wolfe/FEMA News photo.


Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) has a bit of a personnel crisis on its hands.

Officials say an estimated 44 dispatchers call off work each day under the Family and Medical Leave Act – which allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off for a “family medical emergency, pregnancy, or a health condition that impedes the employee’s job performance.”

Experts say many dispatchers have to take time off to “cope with the emotional labor inherent in the job.”  According to Chicago Mag, a 2012 study found that “911 telecommunicators had higher rates of peritraumatic stress, the level prior to PTSD, than police officers.”

The head of OEMC announced in late October that 49 percent of the city’s 911 call takers are absent on any given day, leaving the rest of the operators “overrun with overtime responsibilities.”

Residents of Chicago are apparently already feeling the effects of this huge staff shortage.

The Sun-Times reported that the “rate at which 911 calls were answered had already begun to fall—in a one-hour period on a busy day, call rates went from 95 percent of calls answered in three rings, to 56 percent.”

Paul Linee, who ran a dispatch center in Minneapolis for years, says that employee retention was one of the biggest challenges of his job.  “It’s an extremely challenging prospect to create happy, productive, collegial and collaborative employees in that environment,” he said.

Earlier this year, OEMC workers’ performance came under scrutiny after 2 dispatchers were suspended for their questionable handling of 911 phone calls that eventually ended in a fatal police-involved shooting. In December 2015, while responding to a domestic disturbance call, officers shot and killed 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, who’d been threatening his father and ‘wielding a baseball bat.’  A downstairs neighbor was also shot and killed. LeGrier reportedly called 911 three times for assistance…but officers were not initially dispatched, NBC Chicago reported.

The city is currently working to find a long-term solution to the 911 operator problem, Chicago Mag reports.

 

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