Pa. county to hire for 911 center

By Kevin Flowers
Erie Times-News, Pa.

ERIE COUNTY, Pa. Erie County Council appears poised to approve a $185,877 plan to hire eight new emergency dispatch employees for the county's public-safety operation, which has come under fire in recent weeks because of dispatching mistakes and other problems.

Six of council's seven members, Chairman Ronald Cleaver and members Carol Loll, Kyle Foust, Fiore Leone, Phil Fatica and Joseph Giles, told the Erie Times-News on Monday that they support an ordinance on tonight's council agenda that paves the way for hiring the new employees.

The ordinance needs at least four votes to pass. The new telecommunicators would be trained at the county's Summit Township complex to answer emergency calls and dispatch responders.

County Public Safety Director Joe Weindorf has told council members that the new employees are badly needed to help alleviate staffing shortages at the center, which is the subject of both an internal county probe and a top-to-bottom operations review by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

"I certainly believe (Weindorf) needs the additional people," Cleaver said. "The bottom line is, the center is a work in progress. There's been some glitches, but they're going to work themselves out."

Councilman David Mitchell is out of town and will not attend tonight's meeting. Mitchell, a member of Gov. Ed Rendell's statewide commission on libraries, is representing that commission at meetings in Washington this week.

The county-run facility, at the intersection of Pagan and Flower roads in Summit Township, currently employs 27 telecommunicators. The new workers would start at $12.09 an hour and earn annual salaries of $25,147, county financial records show.

Weindorf said any workers hired would likely not begin handling calls until sometime in September, in part because more than three months of training is required before new telecommunicators can begin answering and dispatching calls.

"That's part of the urgency with this," Weindorf said.

The facility operates 24 hours a day and handles the county's 911 system, as well as dispatching for city of Erie police and firefighters, Corry police and firefighters, Millcreek Township firefighters, and fire and ambulance services in the Elgin-Beaverdam area.

County Council members met with Weindorf, Erie Fire Chief Tony Pol, Erie Deputy Police Chief Randy Bowers and veteran Millcreek fire dispatcher Charles Heffner last week about the county-run center.

Those officials all asked council to support the new hires. Weindorf said Monday that council members were also told a reorganization of the dispatch center's personnel is under way.

"There will be a reshuffling of some job and management duties there," Weindorf said. "We've moved from the building stage and now have to focus on operational things."

Asked about the new jobs, Weindorf said: "It makes sense with our continued consolidation schedule to get the ball rolling on this."

Councilman Kyle Foust, an early critic of the hiring plan, said he is now "much more comfortable" with the proposal. Foust visited the public-safety complex recently to observe telecommunicators at work.

"Having extra people up there will make it easier," Foust said.

The public-safety complex aims to put emergency-dispatch services throughout the county under one roof. All 911 calls in Erie County come into the center, but not all emergency responders are yet dispatched from it.

Questions have been raised both within and outside of county government recently about how effectively emergency calls are dealt with at the county dispatch center.

County Executive Mark DiVecchio announced the PEMA probe on April 30. That same day, the Erie Times-News reported that a separate, county-led investigation was looking into how the center handled the fatal April 25 shooting of 30-year-old Jayson Sack in Erie.

County officials are investigating why the first two law enforcement officers to arrive at the shooting scene were not told by dispatchers that homicide defendant Joel Atkin, 22, was still in the area and was armed with a .357-caliber revolver.

That information had been relayed to 911 by several callers, including Atkin himself, while police were en route. Weindorf, who is handling the probe, said it will be finished later this week.

PEMA spokeswoman Maria Finn said last week that the agency's Bureau of 911 Programs, which oversees municipal 911 systems statewide, will handle the agency's review of Erie County's dispatch center. PEMA will issue written findings when the review is finished, Finn said.

DiVecchio said two recent events prompted him to request the PEMA review: the handling of the Sack shooting, and a recent meeting among county officials and three county telecommunicators and one who was recently fired.

Those employees complained to county officials and representatives of their union in late April about training, staffing, equipment malfunctions and other issues at the county center.

Copyright 2009 Erie Times-News
Erie Times-News (Pennsylvania)

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