The New Orleans City Council has approved plans to place call-takers and dispatchers at the city’s 911 center under the control of the Orleans Parish Communications District, which has been running the emergency call center, though not its employees.
The plan, which has been in the works since 2011, is intended to streamline operations at the center. However, it has run into opposition from representatives of the city’s firefighters union, who argue it will strip employees of protections provided by their collective bargaining agreement and the city’s Civil Service system.
The council voted 6-0 Thursday in favor of an agreement with the Communications District that will allow the plan to move forward. It also approved a budget measure to move the money needed for the consolidation. Council President Jason Williams was absent.
The 911 center now houses separate groups of call-takers and dispatchers who are employed by the New Orleans Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services and who handle only emergencies for their respective agencies.
Under the consolidated system, those employees all will work directly for the Communications District and will be “cross-trained” so they can handle all emergency calls.
Eric Melancon, representing Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, told the council that all employees will continue to make at least as much as they now earn.
Fire dispatchers, who receive supplemental pay from the city and state, will have to complete training in a different type of call before they will reach their current pay level, but Melancon said they will be put first in line for that training, and the city is making other accommodations to make sure they receive raises they would have been due this year.
But Nick Felton, president of the firefighters union, blasted the plan, noting that the agreement takes employees out of the Civil Service system, which provides protections for public workers.
The union also has sought assurances that employees at the center now covered by the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement will remain part of the union, but it has not received a response from the city. That has led the organization to file a grievance.
“This is going to hurt employees,” Felton said.
He also argued that having workers handle calls for multiple agencies could cause problems in dispatching emergency workers.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry told Felton that she and other council members will be “watching very closely” how the employees are treated under the new system.
The Landrieu administration has argued that consolidating the three groups of workers will shorten the time residents must wait before speaking with a call-taker at the center. That’s been a significant problem in the past, and the center is still below national standards in that regard, officials said.
However, the change is unlikely to have a significant effect on lengthy response times for the NOPD. Most of its trouble comes not in the time it takes for a call to be answered but in a lack of officers on the street to respond to calls quickly.
The administration included an additional $1 million in this year’s budget to cover the costs of the transition, including hiring 11 new employees to ensure the center runs smoothly while some employees are in training.
The city will pay about $6.2 million toward the cost of the dispatch center through the end of the year and the Communications District will pay about $500,000, according to the agreement approved by the council.
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