If it weren’t for negative attention, DeKalb County E911 dispatcher Nyesha Brown says she and her co-workers would hardly get any recognition. In September, when the county recognized first responders during its Sept. 11 commemoration, Brown said E911 operators were not mentioned.
“911 is not a clerical non-essential position,” Brown said. “We are the heartbeat of DeKalb and without us there is basically no public safety.”
For the National E911 recognition week last April, Brown said dispatchers held bake sales and hotdog sales to raise money to “appreciate ourselves.”
“When Mr. Doe has fallen on hard times and can’t pay his mortgage and feels like life is at the end for him, I’m the one that talks him off the bridge at Spaghetti Junction,” Brown said. “Contrary to popular belief, we are more than just cackling hens sitting at a console dying to get nasty with the public. We are lawyers, we are counselors. We are doctors.”
Brown and two other E911 operators spoke to the county Board of Commissioners on Jan. 10 about being underpaid, unappreciated and understaffed.
Dannie Rivera, who has worked as a DeKalb E911 dispatcher for seven years, said that although she loves her job she has “begun to question if that’s reason enough to stay.”
“Not because of the furlough days that we have to take, not because of the occasional reduction in pay we had to take and not because of the raises we have not received in more than five and a half years,” Rivera said.
The E911 dispatchers are upset that they have not received pay raises even though there is money available for the salary increases. E911 operations are not funded by the cash-strapped county budget, but by E911 fees on telephone bills.
“Yes the county is in a budget shortfall and has been for a while,” Rivera said. “Yes, there is no money in the county budget to give anyone raises and yes it would be absolutely unfair if what little money the county has is spent to give us a raise.
“Those are all valid reasons to not to give us a raise if the county was the one paying our salaries in the first place,” Rivera said.
The mandatory furlough day, pay cuts, and lack of raises for E911 operators “saved the county absolutely no money whatsoever,” Rivera said. “We should not have to do any of that at all.”
Rivera said there is more than enough money in the E911 fund for annual raises.
“Who would think that in this economy, the problem would not be that there isn’t money to grant raises, it’s that for whatever reason, the county is just not going to provide raises.”
Fairness for all county employees is the reason there have not been raises for the dispatchers, according to DeKalb’s Public Safety Director William Miller.
“There’s funding there,” Miller said. “However, they are employees of DeKalb County just like every other employee. We try our best, even in these hard economic times to adequately and fairly compensate our employees.
“We don’t want to get into a scheme where we are elevating the salaries of one particular class of employees over another,” Miller said. “We want [the dispatchers] to be fairly compensated. We just have to make sure that everybody is fairly and equally compensated based on the jobs that they perform.”
To the complaints that the E911 center is understaffed, Miller said “I wouldn’t say [it’s] very understaffed. All county departments are kind of shorthanded right now.”
According to Mekka Parish, a DeKalb County Police spokeswoman, there are 16 funded, open positions in the department, 12 operations personnel, one watch commander and three supervisors.
The “turnover rate has been somewhat unstable in the past few years,” Miller said. “I believe it has stabilized to some degree now.”
Rivera had a different perspective.
“People are leaving in droves,” Rivera said. “Some are leaving to do the same thing for another agency that pays less, has better benefits and lower pension deductions. The pay is less but they’re still able to get annual raises and have less responsibilities and liabilities than what’s put upon us.”
E911 dispatcher Danielle Stewart said people calling 911 quite possibly will get a recording “not because someone put you on hold, but because there just aren’t enough operators to take the more than 1 million calls that we process annually.”
In the past 12 months, 33 employees quit, with some going to lower-paying jobs, some opting to stay at home and some gone to trucking company dispatch jobs, Stewart said.
“It’s easy to see we are extremely understaffed,” Stewart said. “Why are we understaffed? Because there’s no incentive to stay.”
Miller said the public safety department is trying to staff the 911 center and regularly hold hiring fairs.
Miller said the hard work of the dispatchers is appreciated.
“We have quality employees in there,” Miller said. “They do an excellent outstanding job every single day. We’ve had employees in there who have saved lives via the response they’ve given.
“Our 911 operators are the backbone and the foundation of this department,” Miller said. “I’ve told them that. They’re well aware of that.”