“Controlled chaos” is the phrase Astoria dispatchers say best summarizes the nature of their profession. For these dispatchers in particular, experience in this realm has been critical.
An independent assessment released in August found that the Astoria Police Department was approaching crisis level prior to Brad Johnston’s sudden retirement as chief. Part of the report detailed issues with management and staffing shortages that have plagued Astoria 911 Dispatch.
With Interim Police Chief Geoff Spalding now on board, the dispatch center has been taking the first steps in solving its immediate issues.
“We’re back on an even keel and moving the department ahead,” Emergency Communications Manager Jeff Rusiecki said. “Everybody knew there was a problem somewhere and things weren’t running smooth. Whose fault is that? I don’t know. I’m not going to put the blame anywhere.”
The assessment, based largely on interviews with staff, found that Johnston would often micromanage Rusiecki without providing actual training or mentoring. Dispatchers raised concerns about Rusiecki’s communication style while saying he could occasionally be “steamrolled” by an outspoken subordinate.
“We’ve tried to open the lines of communications better,” said Rusiecki, a 19-year veteran with the police department who speaks in a succinct, serious manner and often exudes a dry sense of humor.
Rusiecki had attempted to address the problem for months by advocating for an operations supervisor position. The supervisor would oversee the day-to-day operations of dispatchers by handling schedules and providing oversight, guidance and accountability.
He or she would report to Rusiecki, who would then have time to perform external duties such as managing direction of cellular traffic and coordinating with the public safety agencies that utilize the dispatch center. The freedom would allow him to effectively execute a full-time job while dispatchers’ needs are satisfactorily met, Rusiecki said.
Though Rusiecki had requested the creation of the position months ago, it was barely addressed by Johnston, the report found. The police department opened the application process soon after his departure and are considering eight candidates, some of whom live locally. Interviews were conducted last week and the position will likely be filled in a month or two.
Dispatchers often work 10-hour shifts during which they handle numerous calls and constantly divert their eyes between four computer monitors. Green lighting was even installed inside the dispatch center recently to counteract the visual strain.
“This is the ultimate customer service job,” Lead Dispatcher Jennifer Peden said. “You can quietly make a difference that no one sees. That’s important, and I like that.”
After questioning 911 callers, dispatchers then decide what level of priority the call receives and which available officer or agency will respond.
“They truly are the gateway for people accessing public safety services,” Rusiecki said.
This year has been more stressful than usual.
The city has allocated 11 positions in the dispatch center, including nine dispatchers. In July alone, typically one of the busiest times of the year for 911 centers, the six dispatchers on staff at the time logged 400 overtime hours.
Since then, another dispatcher has been hired, and overtime hours were cut below 100 in August. One more dispatcher is undergoing background checks, and just one more position will need to be filled after that.
“We’ve been short people before. We’ll be short people again,” Rusiecki said. “Currently we’re in the uptick of the cycle. It’s not as if Astoria is unique.”
An external factor adding to dispatchers’ strain is the growing number of calls this year. The most recent data reveals calls have already surpassed last years’ totals.
Rusiecki pointed to a larger homeless population, more road traffic, easier cellphone access and more medical emergencies as possible reasons, but the police department will not know for sure until its annual report is released next year.
“I can’t put a finger on why we’ve seen an uptick in calls,” Lead Dispatcher Candace Pozdolski said. “I just know we have.”
Rusiecki said he is proud of the performance of dispatchers who have trudged forward despite management issues, staffing shortages and higher service demands. As operations at the center slowly begin to normalize, he said he hopes to provide more training opportunities for dispatchers who he said will have ample opportunities for career advancement.
“They’re highly dedicated, highly motivated. Regardless of what’s going on external to the center, they’re going to do the best job possible” Rusiecki said. “It’s a stressful job as it is. Having the additional burden of command problems just aggravated that, but now with Chief Spalding on board, we’re looking ahead, not back.”