Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hunterdon County Mis-Communications

Hunterdon County was a leader in the area of both Shared Services and 911 Communications Dispatch when it was the first county in New Jersey to open a county wide shared dispatch service.  The county provided the latest in communications equipment, hired the necessary staff including managers, supervisors and administrators to ensure that our citizens had the protection of a competent communications and dispatch system.

Over the course of the last several years, our Communications operation has taken a turn for the worse.  Benign neglect has resulted in undertrained staff, insufficient supervision and a precarious situation for the taxpaying public. 

Currently, we have only one Supervisor in Communications.  His duties include Open Public Record Act requests, maintain and upgrade all radio equipment, computer equipment, computer aided dispatching software (CAD), maintain and update fire box alarms, implement new box alarms for EMS, the complete sweep of issues that arises from a modern Public Safety  Answering Point/Public Safety Dispatch Point AND supervise some 30 dispatchers.  This has proven to be too much scope for any one Supervisor.
There are four important factors that need to be fixed and fixed fast.
  1. Supervision:  As stated above, the dispatchers answer to a Technical Supervisor who is responsible for the technical/infrastructure side of dispatch and now with an unfilled vacancy in the position of Supervisor of Communications, the operations side too.  This scope has proven to be too broad and the vacancy of Supervisor of Communications (or the formal civil service title of Chief Public Safety Telecommunicator) must be filled.
  2. Training:  The training of new dispatchers is a near constant process as we have a revolving door of dispatchers who leave for better pay, out of frustration from not being adequately prepared or being asked to leave for incompetence.  Better training would weed out those who lack the particular talents for the job, prepare those who have the talents to do the job right and deliver a better product.
  3. More Staff:  Not every problem can be solved with more manpower (or woman power) but here the need is justified.  Just a short 10 years ago, an accident would garner a handful of phone calls.  Now, with everyone having cell phones, even the smallest incident can bring in a storm of 911 calls.  Each call must be answered, screened for important new information, and then the appropriate dispatch and update must be made.  We do not have the staff to do this properly.
  4. Better pay:  Hunterdon County will never be, nor should we be, the highest paying county.  We do not waste taxpayer dollars with lavish pay to public employees.  But we must pay a salary that keeps our skilled workers here especially in our essential areas like 911 dispatch.  This would require union negations to allow us to raise these salaries while keeping other employees in line with private sector pay raises (which these days is 0 zero or even cuts).  Our contract with the union to which our dispatchers belong is up at the end of this year.

Hunterdon County, to much fanfare, opened our new dispatch room last year and we are updating the software used to dispatch firefighters, EMT’s and police.  Unfortunately a shiny new hammer doesn’t make the carpenter a better craftsman.  We need to improve our dispatchers now.  A good first start would be the hiring of the right individual for the role of Supervisor of Communications.  It is a vacancy left open too long.