Friday, January 22, 1999

911 workers want furor behind them

Rehirings raise discontent from officers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The voices of Angela Gibson and Eugenia Boiman will soon be back on police radio channels when they return to their 911 dispatching jobs.

        They handled emergency calls the night two Cincinnati officers were killed in December 1997 and were at first blamed for a 47-minute lapse before anyone responded to the Clifton Heights apartment where the officers were shot.

        Now that labor arbitrators have ruled the women deserve their jobs back, Cincinnati's police communications center is trying to return to normal.

        The year since the deaths of Officer Daniel Pope and Spc. Ronald Jeter has been painful for the 911 operation, said Lt. Alan March, assistant police commander in the communications section, which houses 911.

        “You don't heal when you lose two members of your family like Pope and Jeter,” he said. “You just tuck it away.”

        The general feeling among his staff, he said, is that they just want to get on with their jobs.

        From a cramped, windowless room at police headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive in the West End, Ms. Gibson and Ms. Boiman will again handle calls as soon as their refresher training ends in the next few weeks.

        Since the deaths, rank-and-file officers have grumbled about putting their lives in the hands of primarily civilian 911 operators and dispatchers. That discontent resurfaced this week when arbitrator David Stanton ruled police procedures, rather than the 911 workers, were to blame the night of the police shootings.

        Those who work at the 911 center say they want to restore confidence that they can do their jobs.

        “The reason mistakes are news is because they're rare,” Lt. March said.

        Finger-pointing over the

        deaths of the officers must stop, said Yodie Mitchell, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents 911 workers.

        While City Manager John Shirey said the city will try to fight the arbitrators' decisions, Ms. Mitchell said people should accept the arbitration as binding.

        “We want to move on from this,” she said. “It will always be negative as long as people look at it that way. We have to look at something positive out of this.”

        One good thing, she said, is the city is examining how to improve police and fire communications.

        City Safety Director Kent Ryan said he expects a 911 steering committee to recommend improvements to staffing, training and equipment in the next month or so.

        The communications section needs more space and updated equipment, Lt. March said. The room is crowded with 14 call centers and nine dispatch consoles. Cardboard maps hang on the walls because maps are not computerized.

        A staff of about 130 operators and dispatchers work eight-hour shifts. Top pay for operators is about $30,000. Dispatchers make up to $38,000.

        When calls come in to 911, a call taker takes information. If police need to respond, the operator routes the call to a police dispatcher. If medical attention is required, the call goes to a fire dispatcher.

        In times of emergency, the room grows loud. Call-takers are trained to stand up and yell if they get a call that an officer needs assistance.

        In the daily press of routine calls — on everything from street directions to broken pipes — veteran operator-dispatcher Everett “Mac” McClure says he never loses sight of the calls that put officers' lives on the line.

        Mr. McClure, one of the few retired police officers working 911, knows the streets because he ran beats as a cop. He senses when he's sending officers into dangerous situations, such as domestic violence calls, and he feels responsible.

        The 911 operation has changed since the days when every 911 dispatcher was an officer. Nationwide, 911 centers are staffed primarily by civilians.

        “The one common thread of a successful operator or dispatcher is intelligence and common sense,” Lt. March said.

        Anywhere from 1,200 to 1,700 calls a day don't make the news, and he said that should be evidence that 911 operators and dispatchers are up to the task.


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