Chicago’s chronically-understaffed 911 center wracks up $6.9 million in overtime

SHARE Chicago’s chronically-understaffed 911 center wracks up $6.9 million in overtime
SHARE Chicago’s chronically-understaffed 911 center wracks up $6.9 million in overtime

Chicago’s 911 emergency center has already wracked up $6.9 million worth of overtime this year—up to 16,000 hours-a-month—thanks to chronic understaffing exacerbated by a remodeling project and “unconscionable” abuse of the Family Medical Leave Act, aldermen were told Wednesday.

Gary Schenkel, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said he knew overtime would balloon because of the logistical nightmare created by the need to overhaul the 911 center floor at the same time his call takers and dispatchers were fielding 15,000 emergency calls each day, 98 percent of them within three rings.

The “complex and long-overdue project, completed in June, included: raising the operations floor by four inches; installing a new public service answering point; new software and hardware; connecting a new radio system; adding a new voice logging recorder system and installing new console furniture.”

Under questioning at City Council budget hearings, Schenkel revealed that he spent $6.9 million on overtime through Oct. 1–$600,000 more than budgeted for the entire year—and expects to end the year at $7.9 million.

The overtime crunch was made worse by abuse of a Family Medical Leave Act that guarantees employees up to 12 work weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off during a calendar year for the birth or adoption of a child or the illness of a family member.

The abuse of FMLA is triggering 39 absences each day–up from 37-a-day last year–and costing OEMC 35,000 hours a year and $1.8 million. Schekel called the abuse “unconscionable” and said the “same names” are responsible for it.

To reduce 2014 overtime to a more manageable, $6 million, Schenkel said he’s researching an electronic scheduling system and asking the Illinois Institute of Technology to do a “predictive analysis” to help him pinpoint key volume times.

The city has also hired 29 new employees to fill 45 vacancies among a staff of 370 police calltakers and dispatchers. But, those employees won’t hit the floor until the end of this year, because of, what Schenkel calls, a “very intense and demanding” training program that lasts six months. The proposed 2014 budget includes seven additional dispatchers.

“We completely changed the 911 system…And we can’t shut down….We had to move people. We knew it was going to be a heavy overtime this year because of that transition,” Schenkel said.

“That anomaly of having to move people all around to support basically two systems simultaneously should show a reduction,” now that the overhaul is done.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) was not impressed.

He noted that 911 center overtime has more than doubled since 2010, prompting some emergency calls to be answered in a lot longer than three rings.

“They’re….waiting at length for somebody to pick up the phone….That’s managers of business coming to me and saying, I had to wait ten minutes before I could get somebody in a position of authority on the phone to respond to my call,” Waguespack said.

“Somebody who is earning triple their salary or double their salary in overtime. That just doesn’t make sense…The 14,000-to-16,000 hours a month—that breaks down to like 20 bodies a month that we’re spending in overtime. Is that sensible policy?”

Schenkel replied, “It’s sensible policy based on the resources that are available and the ability for us to schedule based on historical knowledge. We can’t predict exactly to the hour–and we’re also tied by collective bargaining agreements—as to when we can assign and when we can’t assign.”

He added, “We can tell you that Friday, Saturday, Sunday are always heavy. We can tell you that the third watch is usually the heaviest. And if we have an event like the Blackhawks [Stanley Cup championship celebration], our call volume goes up astronomically. We’re able to predict those kinds of things. But, if we have a 3-11 or 4-11 fire going on—those are the ones that are difficult. We’ll be able to reduce [overtime], but we’ll never be able to eliminate that.”

Over the years, the Chicago Sun-Times has done a series of stories about the chronic overtime problem at the 911 center. It’s prompted a handful of call takers to more than double their salaries in overtime.

During budget hearings last fall, Schenkel argued that it made more sense to build in $3.2 million in annual overtime—roughly $8,000-per- employee–than to hire more dispatchers at a cost of $120,000-a-year-per-employee in salary and benefits.

“We have historical data that will allow us to schedule to the peak periods and peak times that historically we get a greater call volume,” Schenkel said then, predicting that the average 911 call would continue to be answered in three rings.

“It’s almost like a bell curve as to when it starts to escalate and when it starts to drop off. As you hit the summer months, that bell curve starts going up. Then, as we hit the cooler weather after the holidays and the festivals, we start ramping down.”

Emanuel’s 2012 budget initially called for eliminating the jobs of 17 fire dispatchers, laying off nine others and shrinking the supervisory ranks from 13 to 8. After union negotiations, the mayor ended up eliminating ten dispatcher vacancies, demoting three supervisors and one dispatcher and laying off one call taker.

The jobs of 45 police dispatchers were also eliminated. So were four of 22 radio repair technicians.

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