Supervisors set to consider adding dispatcher

A Fulton County 911 dispatcher sits at a workstation

A Fulton County 911 dispatcher sits at a workstation inside the Fulton County Communications Center inside the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department in Johnstown Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. NOTE: Some screen displays have been altered.

FULTON COUNTY – The personnel committee of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors Wednesday voted to endorse adding another full-time emergency dispatcher position to help deal with significant increases in the volume of calls in recent years.

Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said his department provides emergency dispatch services to 17 fire department and EMS companies and 8 police agencies, but the county hasn’t increased the number of full-time dispatchers in years despite increasing call volume.

“The dispatcher is the first person that people will talk to in the criminal justice system when they need help, either fire, police or EMS,” Giardino said. “We have overlapping shifts, but we try to run with three people on every shift, and ideally it should be four. We have gaps where we only have two people, and this will help bring us towards the goal.”

The total cost of the new dispatcher including salary and benefits is $78,000 with $37,440 for salary based on pay rate of $17.76 for the first year.

Northampton Supervisor James Groff sponsored the resolution to add the dispatcher position during the personnel committee.

“Just to give you a little background, originally we had 16 dispatchers, but somewhere along the line (former Fulton County Sheriff) Tom Lorey cut two of them,” Groff said. “In 1994, when (the county took over dispatch services from the local fire and police departments) Gloversville fire department was running about 1,200 calls a year, they ran over 4,000 calls last year, that’s just the Gloversville fire department.”

Groff, who is a retired sheriff’s deputy, explained why he thinks the county needs to increase its total roster of full-time emergency dispatchers from 14, with 1 communications director supervisor to at least 15 dispatchers plus the supervising position.

“The dispatcher doesn’t just affect (the county sheriff’s department) it affects every single public safety person in the county,” Groff said. “This is basically replacing a job that was eliminated a long time ago that shouldn’t have been.”

Giardino provided emergency dispatch call volume figures for 2020 that showed there were 137,764 calls to county dispatch, of which there were 43,205 calls using the 9-11 emergency system. He said those calls all stemmed from a total of 91,317 total incidents during which either police, fire or EMS, or a combination of those agencies, were dispatched.

In 2021 sheriff’s department numbers the call volume figures increased by 88% to 259,389 total emergency dispatch calls. In 2021 there were 45,879 calls to the 9-11 emergency system, a 6.1% year-over-year increase.

Giardino said the call volumes for 2022 are not entirely available because the new computer dispatch system had a problem and didn’t record numbers for January 2022 and his department has not yet conducted a hand-count of the calls to provide an annual total for 2022.

Corey Uhlinger, who works as a shift supervisor for the emergency dispatchers and also serves as their union president, said the county at times has required mandatory overtime for some dispatchers, increasing their shifts from 12 hours to 16 hours, in order to provide coverage due to staff shortages. He said the county also has a few part-time employees who help fill shifts.

Uhlinger said he believes one of the major reasons emergency dispatch call volumes have increased is the popularity of cell phones and their ability to use the 9-11 emergency system.

“When you have a bad accident or bad emergency, everyone who drives past it on Route 30 — they have a cell phone, so we get 20 to 30 calls for the same incident,” he said. “And you can’t assume they are all for the same incident, because a lot of times something else will come in too, so you really have to field everything. There are also a lot of erroneous calls, people sticking their phone in their pocket and it dials.”

Uhlinger said when he first started working more than a decade ago the dispatch system would never miss a call, but he can’t say that anymore.

“During my first 10 years, we never missed a call, but there are times now when we miss calls, daily,” he said. “You have to do your due diligence with every call that comes in, and there are times when there are just not enough staff to do that.”

By Jason Subik

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