Hiring delays at Suffolk 911 dispatch center rapped

Suffolk lawmakers are criticizing the county's speed in addressing a police call center shortage so acute that workers say they can't even leave their desks to use the bathroom.

Civilian 911 operators and dispatchers returned yesterday to the legislature's public safety committee to say they still haven't seen solutions to their initial public pleas last November. Then, 28 of the division's 154 positions were vacant, and staff told the committee they often had to work overtime shifts without backup and could only take the briefest of restroom breaks.

After lawmakers called the revelations "shocking" -- and budget analysts said money existed to fill eight of the openings -- County Executive Steve Bellone approved hiring six dispatchers and operators, and making five promotions. But the administration acknowledged Thursday that just two of the new hires had started, with the rest not likely to be on and fully trained until summer.

The news came as Suzanne McBride, a dispatcher and union representative, said two more division employees had since retired, all but nullifying the two former staffers who were brought back to begin the new hiring. "We're actually a little worse off than we were in November," McBride said.

During the February blizzard that dumped as much as 30 inches of snow in Suffolk, some dispatchers couldn't get to work, leaving colleagues to work 20-hour shifts, McBride said, and struggle to respond to the about 400 motorists stranded overnight in the storm.

"It's very frustrating. This is something that needed attention immediately," said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), suggesting that the administration should have considered temporarily bringing back retired dispatchers to fill the gap as new hires were found and trained.

Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said the administration's hiring efforts lacked urgency. "As usual, we were asleep at the wheel with no sort of action to address" the issue, Kennedy said.

But Bellone aides insisted they take the shortage seriously. In addition to moving to fill the six vacancies, the administration has looked to improve call center efficiency, possibly by having operators no longer answer nonemergency tip-line calls.

"None of us are ignoring the problem," said Tom Vaughn, Bellone's legislative liaison. "Sometimes facts are just facts and things take too long."

In other action yesterday:

The health committee advanced the second of two bills to limit the availability of energy drinks. Over the objection of beverage industry lobbyists, lawmakers approved a measure to prohibit energy drink companies from providing coupons or free samples to minors.

The action followed the parks committee's OK Wednesday of a bill to ban energy drinks from being sold in county parks. Both bills, sponsored by Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) will be considered for approval by the full legislature on Tuesday night.Health advocates argue that energy drinks can cause elevated heart rates, higher blood pressure, dizziness and even death. The beverage industry says all credible research shows that the drinks are safe, and that their added supplements, such as guarana and taurine, don't enhance the caffeine effect to dangerous levels.

Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) acknowledged that the actions, especially the sample mailing ban, which will be difficult to enforce if offending companies operate outside of Suffolk, will have more symbolic than practical impact.

"It isn't the substance of the legislation as much as it is the statement of this county that this is a product that we have grave concerns over," Lindsay said. "I think that message could be helpful to our populous."

The public safety committee also approved a bill by Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) that would allow county law enforcement agencies to seize vehicles from people charged with leaving the scene of traffic collisions that result in serious injury.

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