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Dispatchers under a lot of stress

Just-resigned employee mentions morale issues
By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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Stress and an inconsistent work environment are two reasons that Melissa Reali recently left her position as a Lincoln police dispatcher. Reali’s last day was June 24. “I would do on-call status,” Reali, 35, said. “Just because I don’t want to see people sink. My leaving is making them work more solo time.” On-call status is filling in temporarily for the department. Lincoln Police Chief Paul Shelgren said Reali will “stay part time, on call.” “Right now, we are still authorized six dispatchers,” Shelgren said. “Until we get that position filled as it is budgeted for (Reali will be on call).” The News Messenger watched dispatchers Reali, Terry Leedy and Staci Poole work from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on June 23. Leedy’s shift ended at 6 p.m. and Poole began her shift. A Sacramento County dispatcher for eight years, Reali has worked the last four years in Lincoln. “I really like being a dispatcher, but with the economy the way it is, I don’t like the officer safety issues,” Reali said. “I have no plans to go back into law enforcement.” Those officer safety issues are related to the number of officers on patrol at one time. Reali said she recently asked to be laid off. “I asked to be included in the lay-offs to save police positions but was denied,” Reali said. When asked why her layoff offer was denied, Shelgren replied by saying “that’s a personnel issue.” “We don’t discuss personnel issues,” Shelgren said. On Tuesday, City Council approved next year’s budget, which includes the layoff of seven officers by Jan. 1. Reali said “morale issues that are administrative and City Council related” caused her to quit her job as a dispatcher this month. “This year has probably been the worst one and morale is bad for everyone,” Reali said. In addition to worrying about officer safety, Reali said, there is “not a lot of backing from administration” for issues such as promises of schedule rotations based on dispatcher seniority. The News Messenger asked Shelgren if morale in the police department is “administrative and City Council related.” “No. It’s one of those things right now with the budget situation, not knowing from week to week who we have and what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of stress in the department,” Shelgren said. “Absolutely, there’s a lot of stress with officers and morale, and with this thing (budget cuts) looming over our heads, it’s very difficult.” As far as shift rotation goes, Shelgren said, “that’s how it works in law enforcement agencies across the nation.” “Fortunately and unfortunately, shifts go by seniority and it’s a senior person who gets the first pick of shifts. Quite often in law enforcement, the junior person gets stuck with the most undesirable shift for a long perod of time,” Shelgren said. “That’s something the individual employees can work together with and switch around. That’s kind of the nature of the business.” Reali also mentioned the city’s funding for dispatch. “Dispatch is General Fund funded. Fire doesn’t pay for dispatch but a great percentage of dispatch is fire and medical aid,” Reali said. The News Messenger asked Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt about the above comment. Whitt said “that’s true” and that 67 percent of calls to dispatch are for medical aid. “It’s all part of the police department budget but it doesn’t matter. It’s either part of fire or all of PD or vice versa,” Whitt said. “It goes back to what it always does, service levels. They are woefully understaffed at dispatch and that directly affects the citizens we serve and the safety of our people.” Safety of Lincoln’s police officers is a concern expressed by both Reali and Poole. “Being solo is my No. 1 (stressor) because if we get something that requires fire and police, I have to call outside resources and am slammed with 911 calls,” Poole, 40, said. “I love this job but hate the stress of being solo.” Poole said she has applied for another job because of the stress. Minimum staffing for police on the street is another concern for Reali, which she said is two officers, one sergeant and one dispatcher at all times. Reali said that was determined by Police Chief Shelgren and was set without “looking up the staffing required for a city our size.” “It’s bad because now the City Council thinks we can manage with those numbers,” Reali said. “It’s unsafe, it’s exhausting all of the people, and they are expecting to get 110 percent when we are overworked.” Shelgren said Reali’s comments about determing the number of officers on patrol are true. “It is what it is. We only have so many officers and cover the street the best we can,” Shelgren said. “Our job is getting tougher all of the time and more difficult all the time.” Shelgren also said police department employees “can’t get in trouble for speaking the truth.” While The News Messenger sat in dispatch last Thursday, there were five 9-1-1 calls, and 15 calls to the business line for issues including a broken pipe and two children who found a bag of methamphetamine near the corner of First and O streets. The 9-1-1 calls ranged from a baby dialing the number by accident, a teen girl calling to report that her brother had been “jumped” and a possible death related to an illness. Officers completed eight traffic stops for “normal traffic violations” last Thursday, according to Reali, and officers call in to find out more information about the drivers and the cars’ registered owners. “It’s how they figure out if they are wanted or have a history,” Reali said. Poole added that it helps officers “be prepared when they walk up to a car.”