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911 staff criticizes training, supervisors

Pinellas County's troubled 911 center has received another blow: A strongly negative survey of its dispatch operators shows that 92 percent disapprove of management and most believe their training program, in the word of one operator, "stinks."

The survey, done by the county's personnel department, also contains anonymous and unproven allegations that some managers on occasion have come into the center intoxicated.

A few employees also blasted 911 center operations manager Christal Coleman for her romantic relationship with former Largo fire Chief Jerry Carter, whose company sold more than $1-million in emergency dispatch software to Pinellas County.

The critical marks for management have drawn interest from County Administrator Fred Marquis, who said he is concerned about the overall message of the survey but has no plans to investigate the anonymous claims.

"We'll address those (concerns)," Marquis said. "If that takes staff changes, then there'll be staff changes."

Marquis previously has defended Coleman's relationship with Carter, saying that Coleman wasn't in a position to influence the county's contract with Carter's company, EAI Systems Inc.

On Friday, he said his biggest concern in the survey is with training and recruiting procedures, which operators said left the 911 center with too few dispatchers to fill vacancies. The center is budgeted for 44 full-time operators; only 32 are on board now.

Marquis also said he has heard from a group of operators that the complaints in the center are from a "few disgruntled employees" and not the full staff's opinion.

The survey, however, shows widespread discontent among 911 workers.

Not one of the 28 current operators surveyed rated the center's top management above a satisfactory mark. Ninety-two percent graded it as "needs attention" or "unsatisfactory."

One operator wrote, "I'll sum it up one, two, three; mismanagement, no management, bad management."

The 911 center supervisors, who run each shift, didn't fare much better, with 71 percent of current workers surveyed giving them negative marks.

One surveyed worker summed it up this way: "It probably would be better for the county to do a clean sweep prior to a state prosecutor doing it for them."

The center, in the basement of the county courthouse annex building in downtown Clearwater, is among Pinellas' most vital government functions. Every 911 emergency call in the county is routed to an operator in the center, who must make quick decisions to send paramedics and ambulances.

After that, the 911 call is routed to the appropriate police agency. It is a job of dramatic moments between stretches of boredom in a darkened, windowless basement.

Tension in the office is higher than normal because of a worker shortage that in January forced the center to shift to 12-hour work days and mandatory overtime. That move was prompted by the firing of two workers who refused overtime assignments. The two, Mark Cummings and Fred Deacon, have appealed their dismissal.

The employee surveys, completed in late February, portray an office badly split between the operators and management, where some operators accuse supervisors of favoritism and conflicts of interest, where the training program "with a 75 percent failure rate is wrong _ they are either selecting the wrong people or the training stinks," one employee said.

David Bilodeau, the director of emergency management in charge of the 911 center, said the survey didn't bring any surprises for him. He has known that the employee shortage has caused morale problems for some time. He added that most of the vitriolic comments in the survey are the result of a few disgruntled workers.

Bilodeau said the accusations about intoxicated managers in the office aren't true. Two of the 28 respondents cited those allegations but gave no specific instances.

Bilodeau also has said that despite the morale problems and shortages, the public has not been put in danger. His office's monitoring of dispatcher mistakes shows that errors aren't increasing because of the strife in the center.

The survey shows:

Dispatchers are concerned about the quality of training in the 911 program. "We have never had a class that finished with 100 percent," said one. "The last was at 25 percent _ something is wrong."

Another wrote, "This program has been on the downhill slide for the past several years."

Some of the employees questioned how well 911 trainer Ruth Johnson has conducted the classes. Marquis would say only that he's examining all aspects of training.

Bilodeau said changes have been made in the way applicants are selected, giving the county a larger pool of candidates from which to choose. Other training changes are planned, he said.

Morale is very low. "Stress level is getting worse because of management," one wrote. Another said, "morale s--ks, old-timers are cut-throat and ready to scare new people off." A third wrote, "Operators are under stress due to unnecessary stress caused by management, not working with the public, making operators tense and edgy."

Some disagreed, saying peer-to-peer relationships were "amazingly good considering the stress levels." One said, "Always unhappy campers, but overall it is okay."

Some supervisors and senior operators are loathed, with such terms as "control freak" and "smokescreen" applied to them.

"This is the most important area needing improvement," one worker wrote. "The supervision style must change to a "Quality' management thinking."

Operators were well-aware of, and unhappy with, Coleman's relationship with Carter, which was the focus of a Times story Feb. 27.

"It seems to me that management is more concerned with helping Jerry Carter make money on the county than getting an adequate level of staffing," one employee wrote.

"The blatant conflict of interest shown by the heads of the department so blatantly displayed and laughed about" doesn't help, another worker said.

POOR MARKS FOR 911 MANAGEMENT

A survey of Pinellas County 911 emergency operators gives low grades to their supervisors and top management, as well as the center's training and recruiting. County officials say they'll look at the problems and even "change staff" if that's what it takes to turn the poor marks around. The survey was completed by 28 current and 18 former dispatch center workers.

NOTE: Percentages have been rounded off.

Training conducted by Supervision

Civil Emergency Services received

Current Former Current Former

Response operators operators operators operators

Outstanding 0% 6% 0% 18%

Better than

satisfactory 4% 17% 0% 12%

Satisfactory 0% 6% 19% 0%

Needs attention 54% 56% 50% 24%

Unsatisfactory 43% 17% 32% 47%

Management of

Civil Emergency

Current Former

Resonse operators operators

Outstanding 0% 18%

Better than

satisfactory 0% 6%

Satisfactory 7% 18%

Needs attention 22% 18%

Unsatisfactory 70% 41%

Source: Pinellas County Unified Personnel System

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