Emily De Vito & WNYT Staff
Updated: January 09, 2020 06:30 PM
Created: January 09, 2020 12:29 PM
ALBANY – It's a problem NewsChannel 13 has been following for years, short staffing at the dispatch center in the city of Albany.
Back in September, NewsChannel 13 covered the story after only three dispatchers were working overnight, two of them doing a double shift.
"They're up to 684 mandates," said Albany Police Officer's Union President Gregory McGee, back in December, about mandates for dispatchers in 2019. "Two dispatchers alone have been mandated 60 times plus. That's a lot on a human body to constantly be mandated working 16-hour shifts day in and day out."
McGee wrote Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and the Albany Common Council in September and his message to them was clear.
"You're sacrificing employee's health, their mental well-being, you're sacrificing their family time," said McGee.
The city is budgeted for 39 dispatchers. Currently, 26 are staffed and 10 are in training. The Albany Police Department also said two others have been given conditional offers of employment. So that would soon bring staffing to 38.
However, how much has this problem cost in overtime for the city? In 2016, the department budgeted for $175,000 for overtime. It spent more than $221,000. In 2017, they budgeted for the same amount but spent more than $349,000. In 2018, they increased the overtime budget to $325,000, but still went over paying out more than $371,000. In 2019, the city budgeted for $525,000. When Emily De Vito received her FOIL request, or Freedom of Information Laws request, on Dec. 10, 2019 the department had spent about $456,000.
"We're in a crisis right now and it's not simply just throw more money at it, you know, you're not valuing your employees," said McGee.
Many people may wonder where the extra money for the increase in overtime came from.
"At some point, we had 13 vacant positions so some of that the money that's allocated to those vacant positions was transferred over in order to cover the overtime cost for those who are still working," explained Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins. "We readily concede that there's been some staffing challenges in dispatch that go back, like you said, years."
Dispatcher shortages happen across the country, but why does Albany have such a hard time retaining them? Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins said they have been working diligently to recruit through many avenues, including social media. A civil service test for dispatchers is being given this weekend and 144 people have signed up to take it.
"My predecessors did a great job of recognizing some challenges in place and putting together some plans to get us through where we needed to be," said Hawkins. "I simply came in and took some of those things that they were already doing and built on those."
However, McGee said salary is a big part of recruitment and retention. Dispatchers in Albany top out around $47,000. Go a few miles up the road and Colonie dispatchers are making more than $65,000 according to McGee.
"When you look at these folks that are constantly being overworked and mandated, it makes sense to actually leave here and go work somewhere else."
Another concern is the residency requirement in the city. McGee has asked the Common Council to remove it, so they can retain people who live outside the city with experience. Chief Hawkins said while the requirement hasn't hampered their efforts to recruit, he also sees how not having it in place could help.
"I think obviously if we didn't have a residency requirement, we'd get more people from the outside - maybe those who had experience that don't live in Albany right now that could've come in," said Hawkins.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan turned down Emily De Vito's request for an on-camera interview. She directed her to Chief Hawkins.
Albany Common Council President Corey Ellis said there is no plan in the new year to remove the residency requirement.
"We feel that there are enough people in this city that could apply for that job, can do that job at entry level," said Ellis. "So, at this time the council, I've talked to all the council members about this as well. They're not in support of changing that residency requirement. We want people to live in the city of Albany."
McGee said dispatchers in Albany don't feel supported by City Hall.
"Why are they not doing anything to help make things better it really is, it's really disheartening to these folks," said McGee.
However, Chief Hawkins said he feels dispatchers know they're supported by City Hall, and he feels confident relief is on the way for them.
"Despite the challenges and despite you know our dispatchers being under the stress that they're under because of staffing, I mean the future's bright," said Hawkins.
NewsChannel 13 did ask about the city of Albany potentially merging with Albany County dispatch. However, Chief Hawkins said there has been zero discussion on that happening.
MORE INFORMATION: City of Albany overtime for dispatchers
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