Fairfax County's emergency communciations center -- the facility that handles emergency police, fire and rescue calls -- was so understaffed and overworked that an internal police department review last summer concluded "its ability to function effectively is in question."
Some workers there say the confidential report raises serious questions about the ability of the center's reportedly demoralized staff to handle an increased number of telephone calls with the advent of 911 emergency service this fall.
County police officials said this week that they have addressed the problems raised by the three-month inspection. "We found things we didn't like," said Maj. Thadeus Hartman, chief of staff services for the force. "We've taken care of the problems . . . I'd say morale at the center is way up beyond what it was last June. I'm confident about that."
Hartman's boss, Col. Richard A. King, was not so sure in a recent plea to county budget officials for increased staff at the center. King, now the deputy county manager for public safety, said in a May 20 memo that the attrition rate in the center "has reached a point where the [police] department cannot provide effective and efficient emergency service . . . "
In his memo, King, then the county's police chief, cited difficulties manning the center with its "constant turnover" rate and poorly trained personnel. "Regardless of the reasons, the problem is real."
Some of the 60 employes at the center, located in the basement of the county's office tower in Fairfax City, agreed in interviews, saying morale is poor and that the critical findings of the 63-page report remain accurate.
"You don't get lunch or dinner breaks," said Sidney Leonard, a worker there since 1978. "You have to gobble down the food while on the phones. There's no way the average citizen can comprehend the stress."
King said in his memo that the planned introduction of 911 service in Northern Virginia this fall "is causing me some concern. In order to satisfy the anticipated problems with the transition, I need a fully trained staff. The issue of manpower for 911 has not been addressed at this point because we are dealing with so many unknowns."
The inspection report noted that the role of the center is critical to the department because "much of the public's perception of the [police] is going to be dependent on the attitudes and abilities of EOC empolyes."
Yet the two inspecting officers said they found the staff overwhelmed by the jobs and the increasing volume of telephone calls they have to answer, an increase that King said amounted to 16 percent in the 10-month period ended in April. The two inspectors said they were repeatedly asked to help answer telephones during their visits to the center and that officers increasingly have had to be pulled from to the patrol duty to cover manpower shortages there.
Some employes were found working their scheduled 10-hour shifts without rest breaks, answering as many as 200 to 250 calls in a five-hour period, the report said. "The combination of understaffing, increased workload and the [four-day, 10-hour shifts] has caused a working enviornment that at times is nearly intolerable from both a personal and an agency perspective," the report said.
The report also cited a lack of training and professionalism in the center. One inspector said he observed one telephone operator who had never taken a training course attempting to deal with a potential suicide who had called police for help, the report said. It doesn't say what happened to the caller, but the inspectors were critical of the employe.
"The training situation in the EOC appears totally inadequate," the report said. "Nowhere else in the department does the agency expect so much from an employe in such a short time . . . . Employes with as few as four days on the job have been 'turned loose' on the nonemergency phones with no more training than a familiarization of the center."
In response to allegations from some employes that the center is a dumping ground for malcontented officers and immature teen-agers, Hartman countered that the officers assigned there were to provide their patrol experience to the operators and that a large number of teen-aged workers were employed to gain experience they might use as police officers.
Fairfax operators managed to answer 96 percent of all emergency calls within three rings but calls to the nonemergency police numbers were observed ringing 8 to 10 times become being answered, according to the report. In comparably sized Prince George's County, which already has a basic 911 emergency system, 98 percent of all emergency calls are answered within two rings, said Prince George's Communications Officer Harold Rodenhausen.
The Fairfax report said communications workers often delay dispatching officers to routine calls, delays caused by a variety of factors including lack of police units. "Serious complaints with impending threat to persons or property are not a concern because they are given immediate attention and desire to respond," it said.
Callers rarely are given an estimated arrival time for less serious calls, a point that troubles many residents, the report said. Typically a Fairfax officer can be on the scene of a complaint in 13.3 minutes, the report said. In Montgomery County, according to police spokesmen there, the average response time was 11.5 minutes.
Hartman said the communications center's authorized strength will go from 60 to 69 in two weeks and that the department intends to make additional requests for operators and supervisory personnel during fiscal 1983 budget hearings in August.