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Suffolk County 911 Operators Plead For Help As COVID Sweeps Through HQ

Police car
Scott Davidson

Suffolk county’s emergency call center was already stretched thin when a post-holiday outbreak of COVID-19 swept through the unit infecting nearly a third of its workers.

“Our management has forced people back to work prior to their quarantine period being over,” pleaded one 911 operator in an email to lawmakers, one of a collection of messages obtained by WSHU through a pulic records request.

Another wrote that the unit was “crumbling” and overtime was required almost everyday. The person wrote, “we’re tired, burnt out, getting sick, and there is no end in sight.”

Union representatives played down the issue blaming the problem on high turnover.

“It's just a very, very mentally grueling job that they do over there. And it is very hard to keep people in them,” said Ben Chiaramonte, a vice president of Suffolk’s Association Municipal Employees.

He said the underlying problem is the high staff turnover. Right now about 15% of the positions are vacant.

“Hiring above the normal amount of numbers for each of those positions that you would normally have, it's really the only way to alleviate people having to be mandated for overtime,” Chiaramonte said.

He said the police department has agreed to look at new ways to hire and train dispatchers.

In a statement, Suffolk police said they will soon begin hiring outside the normal civil service process.

In the series of emails obtained by Freedom of Information Law it’s unclear how many emergency dispatchers are complaining.

Several emails complain about inadequate COVID precautions. One person asked for plexiglass dividers to be installed between workstations only to receive shower curtains.

“We carry on as if our families don’t matter,” an apparent second worker wrote. “We are not spaced far enough apart. We get our temperatures taken on a falsely calibrated thermometer.”

In response to a question about how closely the workstations are located, Suffolk police replied that employees “must work within their pre-pandemic work stations due to the technology necessary to perform their jobs. Accordingly, the department created a video on 3/16/20 about the importance of wearing face covers.”

In response to a question about plexiglass dividers, the department wrote, “existing cubicle walls separate them and they are all required to wear face covers while they are working.”

According to data provided by the department, the infection had been kept low until the holidays when an outbreak caused 30 workers to test positive for COVID-19 in December and January.

“Will this crisis only hit home when you or a loved one needs emergency assistance and you’re put on hold because we’re understaffed?” asked one dispatcher.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.