Suffolk 911 operators and dispatchers on Thursday asked county lawmakers to fill numerous vacancies in their ranks, saying they regularly work mandated overtime to compensate.
The civilian police employees who attended the Suffolk County Legislature's Public Safety Committee meeting said some 30 of 154 positions are vacant. Staffing has been falling for years, but one employee said recent early retirements have worsened the problem and that superstorm Sandy had exposed it.
With the numbers on each shift so low, the communications center workers already on forced overtime during Sandy were unable to break from duties and take "five minutes on the phone to check if their families were safe," dispatcher Suzanne McBride said.
"I believe this last storm stretched us to the absolute limits," said McBride, president of the county municipal employee union's police emergency unit. "We're asking you to hear our call for help."
Legislative budget officials said that seven people from the division took the county's early-retirement incentive last summer, but that the 2013 budget includes money to replace them.
Aides to County Executive Steve Bellone said the administration would start by filling five of the open positions in coming weeks, and will consider more hires only if they are necessary and cost-effective. Also, six promotions will be made to ease supervisory shortages.
Suffolk next year faces a deficit of tens of millions of dollars.
"This was on the radar screen," Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said.
Before Sandy, Suffolk had spent nearly $600,000 on police dispatch and operator overtime this year, after spending $800,000 in 2011. Officials did not estimate the storm-specific overtime costs. While there were some 200 instances of forced overtime in 2010, so far this year there have been about 600, the union said.
Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) called the union's presentation "shocking. . . . It certainly opened a lot of eyes here."
Deborah McKee, a 20-year dispatcher, said, "We need the county to recognize these positions need to be filled, because it's a health issue," noting that the stress of handling emergency calls requires more off time than staffing levels currently allow.
Schneider said the administration will monitor dispatch operations after the new hires to determine whether more are needed.
The Health Committee approved a bill to ban the chemical Bisphenol A, known as BPA, from store receipt paper. Some studies have shown prolonged BPA exposure can lead to a higher risk of some cancers, and the bill's sponsor, Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills), said many large retailers already use BPA-free receipts. A lobbyist for the chemical and plastics industry testified against the ban, saying alternatives haven't been proven safer. The bill will be considered by the full legislature at Tuesday's meeting.
The Public Safety Committee set a Dec. 6 hearing to gather public testimony about the county's response to Sandy. The hearing is at 6 p.m. at the legislative auditorium, 725 Veterans Hwy., Hauppauge.