The city's 911 call takers say the Division of Emergency Communications is out of control. Now, the city is investigating their claims. 

State of Emergency

Style Weekly has learned that the city's Department of Human Resources along with the city attorney's office has launched an investigation of personnel and employment practices at the Division of Emergency Communications. Meanwhile, Leo Godsey, chief of the department, has announced his retirement, effective Aug. 31.

Employees of the department have received letters inviting them to confidential meetings with representatives of the Department of Human Resources and the city's law department.

This comes amid much unrest among some employees of the division, who say management is negligent, working conditions are deplorable, the division is severely understaffed and employees are overworked.

Except for one senior communications officer, all the employees Style spoke to for this story asked that they remain unnamed for fear of professional retaliation from management.

Employees say there is no end in sight to a temporary state of emergency — which requires four hours of mandatory overtime each week — initiated in November 1998 because of staffing shortages. Employees are also outraged by what they say is an unfair on-call policy which has robbed them of a normal life outside of work.

Fred Hughes, deputy chief of the department of public works, who oversees the division calls those characterizations an "exaggeration" and says he is "pulling out all the stops" to address the issues through total quality management programs.

The division has hemorrhaged employees recently. Once staffed at about 72 employees, it now functions with only 50. Hughes says recruitment to fill the 22 vacant positions is ongoing. There has been, he says, "a lack of interested and/or qualified individuals."

"They're stealing our days off"

Employees complain that the division's on-call policy is not only disruptive to their personal lives, but is overburdening employees so much, it is becoming dangerous to police and citizens.

Because of the reduced staff, employees often are required to carry pagers on days off and must respond to a page within 30 minutes of receiving it and report to work within two hours of the page, or else they will be officially reprimanded. It is not only possible but common for employees to work 12 hours straight, have eight hours off and be called back for another 12-hour shift.

Senior Communications Officer Chester Holtyn filed a grievance with the city in April about the on-call policy after he was reprimanded for not responding to a page he says he never received. He wrote in the grievance: "I can assure you that back to back 12-hour days with only 8 hours off in between will weaken even the strong. ... When is an employee to sleep when he/she has only 8 hours between shifts? ... Given the emergency nature of our job, this raises serious questions about the public's safety and police officer/firefighter safety."

Holtyn and other employees say because of the system, their days off are not their own. One employee says he can't even drink a beer on his day off. He can't mow his lawn for fear that his pager will go off and he won't hear it.

Employees say they have no guaranteed days off the entire year. Hughes disputes that, saying employees' assigned vacations and days off are "their own," but acknowledges that "with the current shortage, everybody is called in more frequently."

Holtyn says the frequency is too much. "They're stealing our days off," says Holtyn, a river enthusiast who admits he takes his chances and goes to remote sites on the river, even when he is on call. "They expect someone to come here for 30 years and not have a guaranteed day off — [they] don't care if you have a ticket to Mexico."

Overworked and understaffed

The on-call policy, along with the mandatory overtime, has created a situation in which employees are "physically and mentally exhausted," according to one. Employees say people are quitting "right and left."

The staffing problem is so bad, the department was forced in June to shut down police channel 5, the service channel, from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. Channel 5 is used to assist police in getting information from the Department of Motor Vehicles, running license-plate numbers, for example. One employee says with channel 5 shut down at night, officers must wait longer for that information until a dispatcher can get free from other police calls to get the information. With the unpredictable nature of any traffic stop, the communications officer says, "it's an officer safety issue."

Employees say there is often not enough coverage for 911 call lines, which sometimes ring six or more times before they are answered. Sometimes there are as little as two call takers answering 911 calls from all over the city. Employees claim supervisors are little help: "911s could be ringing off the hook and they walk right by," says Holtyn.

It's not just 911 emergency calls that demand the staff's attention: In addition to the roughly 400,000 emergency calls they answer each year, they also answer administrative calls, the city's citizen assistance lines, department of public works lines, animal control lines and school security lines off hours — roughly 550,000 more calls each year.

The workload is causing skill levels to drop, says one employee. "They want us to stay up for over 30 hours. ... Physically, it's impossible. But people do it," he says. "How can they put the lives of the citizens in this city in my hands under those conditions?"

Employees say mistakes are made all the time, some significant, but they decline to give specifics. They all say it's just a matter of time before a serious mistake is made, but one could argue that that has already happened. In October 1998, officer Thomas "Mongo" McMahon was killed in the middle of a high-speed pursuit. It was widely reported that mistakes were made by dispatchers, who failed to tell McMahon the suspect was armed, and who confused the number of the car McMahon was driving with another car number.

"The city is negligent"

All eight of the employees who talked to Style point their fingers squarely in the direction of management when laying blame for the current situation. They say Godsey has managed by favoritism, retaliation and intimidation.

"They intimidate people down there, often daily. That's how they supervise. They bully," one employee says.

Another says that Godsey is "so busy impressing City Hall he's not worrying about DEC." Godsey is the project manager overseeing the upgrading of the 20-year-old communications system scheduled to come online in spring 2001. And impress City Hall, he has. Hughes is glowing in his praise of Godsey. Godsey's knowledge of communications systems is so valuable to the city, Hughes says, it has asked Godsey to remain with the $24 million system upgrade project on a provisional basis after his retirement.

But employees say he has taken his eye off the ball at DEC. Some believe he's been short-sighted in his attempt to fill vacant positions, that he simply never planned for the possibility of a mass exodus. Now, the department's being forced to pay out thousands in overtime pay. Hughes says overtime and part-time pay cost the department $10,000 per pay period.

"[Godsey] can't hire people fast enough to cover his shortages," a senior communications officer says.

"He's run the department into the ground," Holtyn says. "If he was running any business in this country that turns a profit, he'd be fired years ago for blatant negligence. He hasn't fulfilled any of his responsibilities," Holtyn says. Godsey has done nothing to try to retain employees. "He's run people off," he says. And Holtyn believes that under Godsey's management, the people of Richmond simply are not getting the service they deserve.

The list of employee complaints goes on to include inadequate training and a "nasty" physical work environment with cockroaches, moldy and flea-ridden carpeting, food on the walls and trash piling up over weekends. They say employees have been injured falling out of broken chairs.

As for the training, an employee says, "I worry about the training. People are not adequately trained and don't know the situation codes, meaning they are going to make a mistake."

It is a fear that is oft-repeated, that the situation at emergency communications is a ticking time bomb and the citizens and police of Richmond are its inevitable victims. "We're waiting for that," says one employee ominously, "for some major incident to

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