Porter County dispatchers can cycle way out of stress

Jordan Bucy, of Valparaiso, a Porter County 911 Call Center operator, uses a stationary bike from the Porter County Fire Association last December while working at the call center.

Kale Wilk, file, The Times

It is astonishing that the federal government classifies 911 dispatchers — telecommunicators, in bureaucratic lingo — as clerical workers rather than public safety employees.

The public safety role of dispatchers is obvious. 

Dispatchers play an invaluable role in protecting the public. When they're not directing police and firefighters to specific locations, they're often walking frantic callers through the steps of CPR, applying a tourniquet or other first aid techniques. Or they're reassuing callers that help is on the way and instructing the callers how to respond when police or firefighters arrive.

"They are the unsung heroes of public safety," as Mike Brickner puts it.

Bricker, director of the Porter County 911 and emergency management department, is making changes to improve operations of that newly merged department.

Among the challenges facing Brickner is how to staff the 911 dispatch center.

Like police and fire departments, the dispatch center requires 24-hour staffing. In county government, only public safety agencies must be staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Currently, dispatchers are scheduled to work four 12-hour shifts one week and three 12-hour shifts the next, with shift changes at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.

That schedule means every dispatcher works 84 hours every two weeks, or four hours of overtime every pay period.

And if a dispatcher calls in sick, that's an automatic 12 hours of overtime for a substitute.

What Jeff Good, president of the Porter County Board of Commissioners, calls an "archaic rule" by the federal government, the Standard Occupational Classification unnecessarily complicates scheduling for dispatchers. Public safety workers don't have to follow the same federal labor rules that apply to clerical workers and others.

Good plans to start talking with federal officials about reclassifying 911 dispatchers as public safety employees to be more in keeping with their role in a 24-hour public safety agency. That would give dispatchers the respect they deserve and their managers the scheduling flexibility they need to staff those dispatch positions more effectively.

This is an issue that affects every county in every state. 

"It's been bubbling at the federal level for awhile; it just hasn't gotten over the hurdle," Porter County attorney Scott McClure said.

It's time to give it the extra push as the federal Office of Management and Budget moves to revise that classification of standard occupations for 2018.

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Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase, Editor Bob Heisse, Politics/History Editor Doug Ross and Managing Editor Erin Orr.