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Suffolk lawmakers urge hiring more 911 workers

Lawmakers Thursday called for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to hire more 911 operators and police dispatchers to reduce mandatory overtime.

The county mandated 126 four-hour overtime shifts in August and 171 shifts in July, police Lt. Matthew O'Malley told the legislature's Public Safety Committee in Hauppauge.

"I think it's outrageous that on average, four people a day are mandated to work a shift," Legis. Kara Hahn (D-East Setauket) said. "This is a vital public safety service. We can't have these workers essentially handcuffed to their desks."

County spokesman Justin Meyers said mandatory overtime is necessary to keep 911 phones properly staffed and would decline after the summer.

Meyers said "any spike would be from people taking vacation" during the summer. "Staffing levels are exactly where they should be," he said.

The number of mandated overtime shifts for prior months or years was not available Thursday.

The county has filled 137 of the 144 authorized positions for police dispatchers and emergency complaint officers.

Suzanne McBride, a dispatcher and chief shop steward for the police call center employees, said conditions have gotten worse over the past few years.

"People are burning out, people are leaving," said McBride, who had worked 21 hours of overtime over the past three days. "When people have loved ones dying, we're the ones they call, we're the ones trying to get help and calm them down."

The number of mandatory overtime shifts would be even higher, she said, but workers "volunteer" to work overtime in order to avoid future mandated shifts.

McBride said there are 25 fewer call center employees today than in 2005.

Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said that with difficult jobs, call center workers stretched too thin could lead to mistakes. "We need to have adequate 911 staff. The stress is high enough without mandated additional hours," Kennedy said. Public Safety Chairwoman Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley) also said the county should hire more workers.

The county has been trying to keep payroll down as it deals with a potential $176 million budget deficit. The county has more than 1,000 fewer workers on the payroll than in 2012.

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