Turnover among emergency call dispatchers at the Schenectady County Unified Communication Center is high enough that the County Legislature is weighing changes in a residency requirement to make it easier to recruit new people for the demanding jobs.
The Legislature on Tuesday scheduled a public hearing for 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, on a local law that would waive the requirement that public safety dispatchers be residents of the county for at least one year before they are hired, and remain county residents during their employment. The move, according to the resolution, would "address the recruitment and retention difficulties at the Unified Communications Center."
The centralized dispatch center for all municipalities in the county opened in Rotterdam in 2014 as part of an effort to save communities money by consolidating the dispatch services that were previously offered separately at each police department. The dispatch center also handles 911 calls for dozens of fire and emergency medical organizations in the county, as well as fielding many non-emergency calls.
At least one former employee said staffing shortages are a significant problem. "That place is an accident waiting to happen and it’s only a miracle that it has not happened yet," David Gallup, a former long-time Glenville dispatcher who worked briefly for the county center before retiring in 2016, wrote in an email Wednesday to The Gazette.
County Attorney Christopher Gardner acknowledged that low salary may be part of the problem with recruiting more dispatchers, though he said changing the residency requirement would be a first step to increase the pool of potential candidates.
Dispatchers are required to have a high school diploma, but no previous experience is necessary to become a trainee. Trainees start at about $33,000 a year, according to the county. The starting salary is about $37,861 after one year on the job. The pay for more experienced dispatchers tops out at about $49,000. Dispatchers must pass a civil service test. County leaders acknowledge the job can be stressful and demanding.
"The job is 24/7, so you lose a lot [of candidates]," Gardner said. "I think we'll be going into collective bargaining for a new contract this year, and we could address it there."
The labor contract covering the dispatchers -- many of whom initially came over to the county from the municipal dispatching jobs they previously held -- is due to expire at the end of the year. Gardner acknowledged that the salary for trainees, in particular, may need to be higher.
Still, changing the residency requirement "would help address this issue, as it will allow for greater flexibility in recruitment and provide for retention of employees who do not live within the county," said a memo from County Manager Kathleen Rooney to county legislators.
"Many careers in the dispatch series are opportunities and stepping stones for other positions within law enforcement and public safety," according to the memo. "Thus, due to the nature of these positions, there is often a higher turnover rate than within the workforce."
The local law changing the residency requirement could be approved as soon as Feb. 13, but the proposal is that the change be made retroactive to Jan. 1.
With few exceptions, the Schenectady County code requires that employees and officers hired after May 1, 2000, be residents of the county, and this would create an exception for dispatchers.
"Taking this action will allow greater flexibility in recruitment and also allow for retention of employees who do not live in Schenectady County," county Director of Human Resources Jaclyn Falotico wrote in a Dec. 18 memo to Rooney.
The dispatching center in 2018 is budgeted for 44 dispatchers, plus a director and deputy director. It wasn't clear Wednesday whether all the positions are currently filled. The center's 2018 budget is $4.7 million, about 60 percent of it for personnel costs.
The center handles about 75,000 emergency calls a year from the city of Schenectady and towns of Glenville, Niskayuna, Rotterdam, Princetown and Duanesburg, each of which pays part of the cost.