Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 7th and Race streets Credit: AP Photo / Matt Rourke

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Police and fire dispatchers in Philadelphia, who field more than 2 million emergency calls every year, are dealing with their own crisis.

Coronavirus cases have been ripping through the civilian workforce in the dispatch room, and staff cries for help have netted little response from department leadership, workers and their union reps told City Council on Thursday.

Lawmakers heard testimony from 911 personnel and union officials about the situation inside the police radio room at PPD headquarters in Center City. To date, over 30 dispatchers have contracted the virus — many of them within the last month. The outbreak is part of a larger surge hitting the department, as the Inquirer reported last week.

Inside their tightly packed workspace, dispatchers said they’ve been separated from each other with what they described as makeshift cardboard barriers. The department confirmed to Billy Penn that it recently installed some plastic barriers.

Overall staffing levels now sit about 20% lower than the department allocation for police dispatch. Ongoing absences due to COVID infections or exposure have further crippled the understaffed civilian unit, its members said, as call volume this year has increased.

The unit has 220 dispatchers in total, but “there is no less than about 50 or 60 dispatchers out with COVID-related symptoms or having to quarantine,” said dispatcher Michell Lynn. The two-decade department veteran testified via Zoom because she herself was under quarantine.

Dispatchers, who are as essential to emergency response to police officers but paid far less than the average cop, said the negligence is a symptom of the department treating civilian workers like second-class citizens.

“The police department needs to do better with its civilian employees,” said Darnell Davis, a union representative for AFSCME Local 1637, which represents radio dispatchers and other civilian police personnel.

Throughout the pandemic, Philadelphia police officers have been criticized for not wearing masks. Davis alleged the blasé attitude reached up to the top.

He testified that Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw did not enforce a mask policy among her own leadership team until a coronavirus outbreak several weeks ago.

The department denied the allegation. “That is not true,” Sgt. Eric Gripp, a PPD spokesperson, told Billy Penn. “In fact, not only is mask wearing enforced, but schedules are staggered to limit the number of employees sitting in offices at once.”

Hearing testimony from dispatchers, Council vowed to address some health safety measures, like securing more Plexiglass barriers to separate dispatchers at work.

“It is unfathomable that you have to deal with this on top of the work you’re already doing,” said Councilmember Helen Gym, who led the hearing.

Surging virus strained already understaffed unit, union says

Dispatchers have been sounding the alarm since the spring about the COVID risks in the dispatch room. Billy Penn reported in April that radio dispatchers were already fearing an outbreak in the cramped workspace. “Everybody’s scared. If someone in here has it, we all take it home,” one dispatcher predicted.

Outlaw said at the time that moving the police dispatch to a remote location was out of the question, but promised leadership would improve sanitation supplies and other mitigation efforts.

“The Police Radio Room also has two satellite locations where dispatchers are assigned when it becomes untenable to maintain proper social distancing in the [police headquarters building],” Gripp said in a statement.

Eight months later, staff levels are a huge concern. A personnel increase could mitigate soaring absences and worker fatigue, said Frank Halberr, the president of AFSCME Local 1637.

Even prior to the pandemic, the union maintained the department needed at least 335 dispatchers to meet the needs of a city with 1.6 million residents. As is, the PPD has an allocated budget for 278 dispatchers, according to Halbherr. Only 220 are on payroll.

“We’ve been saying this for years, these numbers are unsustainable,” said Halberr. “We have continually tried to bring these issues to management [but] have failed to convince management to take our suggestions seriously.”

It’s one of many issues City Council plans to consider ahead of budget season next year, according to lawmakers.

There won’t be a lot of money to work with. With tax revenues decimated by the pandemic’s economic blows, Mayor Jim Kenney has warned the city will be required to consider deep austerity measures in 2021.

Further, any proposed increases for the police department’s budget would likely be met with hostility from protesters who are seeking to divert money away from the PPD and put toward social services.

‘If something goes wrong, they blame the civilians’

Dispatchers who testified also aired grievances about other pressures placed on workers in the unit, compounding difficulty and stress.

Morale has plummeted. “People that used to walk in with a smile walk out feeling like ‘I hate my life,” said dispatcher Melissa Distassio.

Another source of tension: The PPD’s communications unit, which includes police radio, is now led by Chief Inspector Dennis Wilson, the former deputy commissioner who was demoted in June after he green-lit the use tear gas against protesters on the Vine Street Expressway. Capt. Edward Appleton oversees the police radio division and reports directly to Wilson, according to the Inquirer.

Lynn, the veteran dispatcher, said she and her colleagues have been struggling to implement new mental health screenings during 911 calls — which became mandatory in the wake of the October police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. 

Workers weren’t properly trained, Lynn said, adding that the screening process has resulted in more verbal attacks from callers. She said supervisors blamed dispatchers over the Wallace incident, and that the tensions between civilian workers and sworn police personnel are rising.

‘We’ve become the collateral damage of the police department,” Lynn said. “If something goes wrong, they blame the civilians.”

If dispatchers complain, it results in retaliation, Davis said. “No where in the city of Philadelphia do snitches get stitches more than in the Philadelphia Police Department.”.

The union also represents other civilian staff in the department, including clerks, technicians, photographers and tow truck drivers. Davis said all have been hit hard by COVID due to “the lack of efficiency” from leadership.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...