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911 costs higher here than similar centers
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The Covington-Newton County 911 Center is requesting four more dispatchers, and while it has fewer employees than similar departments, its call volume is smaller and its budget is larger.

The News compared five 911 centers across the state that served similar-sized populations. Newton County's center had the highest budget reported, including higher salaries, despite having the lowest call volume, but it's also the only center to use more modern digital radios and be independently accredited.

Diector Mike Smith said he needs the additional employees to fully staff the local 911 center and cut back on overtime costs caused by the shortage. The center reported $241,000 in overtime costs in 2010.

How the center operates
The Newton County center has a separate dispatcher and computer system for Covington Fire/EMS, Covington Police, Newton County Fire/EMS, Newton County Sheriff's Office northwest sector and Sheriff's Office southeast sector.

The local 911 center uses four teams of five dispatchers, with each team having a team leader, or supervisor. The teams work in 12-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or vice versa. They rotate the days they work based on a 3-2-2 schedule of three days on, two days off, two days on, three days off, two days on, two days off and so on.

Centers were split on the number of administrative staff they have, but Smith said his center had tried to operate with fewer team leaders but the results were "disastrous."

"Tell me any operation or business that doesn't need a supervisor," Smith said. "Those dispatchers are focused, focused on their screens and units. What happens when a piece of equipment fails (in the back)? What happens when a citizens calls with a complaint? Who's doing the shift coverage and the staffing? Who settles the quibbling between staff? Who's seeing the big picture?"

Because of a lack of dispatchers, the team leaders have had to frequently fill in to actually take calls and dispatch.

Smith said the center is actually on the brink of needing even more employees, because many larger centers have dedicated call takers and dedicated dispatchers. A call taker would take the call from the public and gather all the information, while the dispatcher would be the one talking to the public safety official and instructing them on the situation and what they need to bring to the scene. Smith said even one or two call takers would be a benefit.

"You need to dispatch for a law enforcement call, but you can't because you're giving medical instructions. Do you take a break to dispatch or finish giving CPR instructions or medical instructions?" Smith asked.

Based on the annual reports released by Newton and Fayette counties, call response times seemed to be similar, with the majority of calls being processed in less than 2 minutes.

The human cost
The 911 center is jointly funded by Covington and Newton County, with Covington generally covering personnel costs and the county covering equipment costs.

Although Covington's dispatcher salaries were in line with other counties, its benefit package is greater. Covington Human Resources Analyst Amanda Edge said the city's general rule is that benefits are valued at 50 percent of salary.

Bartow uses a 36 percent benefits to salary ratio, according to Bartow Chief Financial Officer Jo Taylor, while Fayette County's was calculated to be around 30 percent.

Covington also had the highest reported salary for its director position at $73,126, although Fayette County, which was second highest at $60,809, only listed its starting salary. Again, Covington's benefit package was by far the highest.

Covington also gives annual raises, including 5 percent in 2008, 2.5 percent in 2009 and 5 percent in 2010. Raises are not given to employees who have maxed out their salary for their particular pay range. The salary range for Covington's 911 director position is $55,973 to $82,805.

Training costs are another factor that affects all 911 centers, particularly because of 911's high turnover rates. Smith said Covington has a 13 percent turnover rate among employees, because the fast-paced job often becomes too stressful. To partially combat that turnover, the center has lengthened its training and hiring process.

"We have trainees come in and spend a couple of hours talking to dispatchers and watching what they do. A lot of the time they will pull themselves out of the process," Smith said. "Then we get a lot of people who go through process, but when they start seeing the responsibility, they push back from the console and say they don't want this much responsibility."

While the city's budget appears stable and may actually increase in fiscal year 2012, the county is expected to again cut budgets, making it unclear how the 911 center will fare.