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NCCo looks to add 911 operators - Community News 10/8/08

Proposal follows last week's call for more police
By Jesse Chadderdon
Community News
Posted Oct 08, 2008 @ 01:35 PM

Wilmington, Del. —

New Castle County officials said Tuesday they want to hire more 911 call operators, the second phase of a plan to beef up its public safety functions over the next five years.

The announcement comes just a week after County Executive Chris Coons rolled out a proposal to increase the police department by 35 percent over the same time frame.

Combined, the staffing increases will cost $1.8 million this year and then an average of $3.9 million each year through 2013.

A total of 16 new employees would be added to the Emergency Communications Department during that time. Chief Dave Roberts said the added staff would not only give the county more people to answer 911 calls at any given time, but said it would also allow the department to create a career ladder that clearly outlined opportunities for advancement within the department.

Roberts said the Emergency Communications had a turnover rate of 29 percent last year, by far the highest of any county department. He said the job – with its 12-hour shifts – was highly stressful, and the lack of a clear path toward management positions was taking its toll on the morale of the rank-and-file.

With nearly everyone owning a cell phone these days, it’s not uncommon for the 911 call center to be overwhelmed with phone calls from a single, highly-visible incident. That alone, Roberts said, was a compelling reason to add more staff.

In total, the call center received 498,321 calls last year, more than 80 percent to the 911 line and the rest to the non-emergency number. Of those calls, 75 percent were answered in 10 seconds or less – the department standard. Roberts said the staffing increase should get that number to 90 percent.

On the police side, the proposal is to add 117 officers and 12 civilians to the current staffing level of 364. Officials say the move will cut response times and allow officers to do more proactive patrolling and community policing. Col. Rick Gregory said the new hires would help cut crime in New Castle County by 10 percent.

For more on the County Police proposal, view last week's story.

County Council members seem to universally agree that the county needs to bolster its public safety ranks, but several said Tuesday they were already getting a pushback from their constituents about raising taxes to pay for it.

Councilman Robert Weiner (R-Chatham) said he had received more than a dozen emails questioning the need for more staff and intimating they thought the departments were bloated with supervisory positions. Weiner said he disagreed with their characterization, but said it was important for county officials to make their case to the public that the additions were vital to public safety.

“They keep saying the private sector has done more with less and that we should do more with less,” said Weiner.

Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Bullock said that was not the case with Emergency Communications.

“Very rarely have I run into government’s that aren’t a little too fat at the top,” Bullock said. “But this is an organization that is too thin at the top. We have a lot of people up there that are very good, but they’re nearing retirement age and they’re not going to be around forever.”

For his part, Gregory said his administrative staff was also very lean, and estimated it was half the size of other comparable departments. Meanwhile, places like Ann Arundel County, Md. – which has similar population figures – has more than 600 police officers and 1,000 sworn and civilian members.

Councilman Jea Street (D-Wilmington South) said he believed the evidence was clear that the county needs to do more when it comes to public safety.

“How much is it really going to cost us when a police officer doesn’t get there on time,” Street said. “If you get to a point when your car gets broken into and instead of getting a police officer you get a case number, you need more cops.”

Bullock said the council would be asked to vote on this year’s authorization in the coming month, so the 22 new officers slated to be added in year one would be able to participate in the police academy scheduled to begin Dec. 8

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