Despite a rising chorus of complaints from the public, Jersey City’s 911 communications center continues to be mired in dysfunction. This is according to multiple employees of the Jersey City Public Safety Communications Center who, fearing retaliation, spoke to the Jersey City Times on the condition of anonymity. The Jersey City Times also reviewed internal emails.
According to the workers, chronic understaffing and poor management have compromised public safety and many employees are owed thousands of dollars in back pay because of a malfunctioning payroll system. What’s more, according to the emails, the staff has not received state-mandated training nor has management developed a protocol for handling “active shooters.”
Complaints about the performance of JCPSCC are not new. In November, Public Safety Director James Shea acknowledged that the problems go back ten years. In 2015 and 2018, the city hired the firm IXP to evaluate the center and possibly take it over. In addition to recommending the city take specific steps to increase the call center’s efficiency, IXP noted “persistent staffing challenges” that not only led to increased overtime but that it said could “negatively impact the performance of the dispatch operation.”
The JCPSCC is comprised of three units made up of civilians: 911-call takers, police dispatchers, and fire dispatchers. On a fully staffed shift, there should be six people for each of the three units as well as a supervisor for fire dispatchers and a supervisor for police dispatchers.
But often, there will be far fewer than the required number. “We ran weekends through January with two 911 operators working midnights,” said one of the employees.
Fully staffed, the JCPSCC should have at least 120 employees. Today, the headcount is approximately 80.
Even if fully staffed, there will be instances, employees admit, where it takes time to get through to 911. “Once you’re on the phone, you can’t take another call until you’re done,” said one employee. If the caller hangs up, the 911 operator must try to reach him or her. “A lot of people will hang up if they don’t pick up right away.” During a recent incident involving the Taqueria Downtown, 270 calls came in within a 40-minute period.
If the 911 call takers are too busy to answer, a system called PSAP is supposed to re-direct the call to operators in nearby towns after ten rings. However, according to one JCPSCC employee, the system did not work. “About a year ago they did some testing and realized the lines weren’t hooked up right,” the individual said. A fix was made, but the employee didn’t know if it was now working properly.
But the understaffing has, says Kim Nieves, Vice President of Local 246, put the operation out of compliance with New Jersey law. According to state guidelines, the JCPSCC should have enough operators to answer 90 percent of the calls at its busiest moment.
Management is unwilling or unable to hire new employees, say some who work there. “Their procedure is to have people come in and take the test. If they pass the test … the paperwork goes to HR. The paperwork sits for six months. By the time they get the paperwork back, they call people, and they’ve found another job. People don’t want to wait six months or three months,” said another employee.
Assistant Director David McNeese acknowledged the staffing problem in an email. “Nothing we can do if the city will not hire or promote. We have all tried to get [training sessions] accomplished. While they have tried to do training in the past, staffing has always caused issues.”
Indeed, a lack of training also bedevils the call center, according to some. Since 2015, JCPSCC workers haven’t received a yearly eight-hour course mandated by the state. When asked about informing the authorities in Trenton, McNeese waffled. “I am not trying to hide anything from the state, but at the same time we don’t have to be fourth coming [sic] with the information either to the state.”
The issues at JCPSCC came to a head last month when an SUV rammed Taqueria Downtown, and callers couldn’t get through to 911. The following day, the administration released an email from the mayor to subordinates. “We really should move forward with this on the next agenda and start to take the steps we discussed to change the culture and improve performance here.” Employees, however, say nothing has changed thus far
And the problems are nothing new. In 2020, this writer was unable to reach 911 for 10 minutes. Jersey City resident Andrea Ducas remembered her own failed attempt to get through to 911 during the summer of 2020. “It literally rang for two minutes, and nobody picked up. This is not an isolated occurrence.” In 2021, another local resident recounted that he was unable to reach 911 as an elderly man was beaten on the street below his window.
In May last year Andre Beckles called 911 as a man was attacked on the corner of Astor Place and Park Street. He gave up after 45 seconds. A week later, he heard a woman being attacked at the same location and again called 911. After waiting for over a minute and a half, he again gave up. Said Beckles, “Such horrible service may lead to citizen apathy and unreported crime, or worse, vigilantism.”
Several of the people the Jersey City Times spoke with said the problem starts at the top. “The director has no public safety background. Nor does the deputy director. Neither of them understands 911.” Said another, “Good leadership should be able to come out and help if there’s a problem.” But they don’t have the skills, said the employee.
Making matters worse, say employees, is the lack of supervision at the ground level. Each of the three shifts — day, evening, and midnight — should have two supervisors, one for police dispatchers and another for fire dispatchers. The supervisors are there to provide guidance for less experienced dispatchers and to make sure that dispatchers remain at their posts. Often, however, there may be only one or even no supervisor on a shift.
Employees say the reason for the lack of supervision is simple. Management had promised to give supervisors it “promoted” a pay raises and new civil service titles, but has not. Instead, for years it has kept these individuals on as “acting supervisors” paying them a paltry ten dollars a shift extra. Some have quit in frustration.
Piled on top of the operational and managerial issues is the problem of unpaid work. Since the city installed a new payroll system in December, employees at JCPSCC say they have been chronically underpaid. The system, called Unicorn, can’t handle the irregular schedule worked by call takers and dispatchers, who work five days on then two days off followed by a schedule of five days on, three days off. As a result, the system underpays the workers by four hours every week and undercounts overtime owed.
Many of the call takers and dispatchers are owed between one and two thousand dollars, with the amount increasing each week. According to one of the workers, the city has responded by saying, “Prove that we’re not paying you right” or “We’ll look into it.” Says Nieves, “When they ask, ‘When are we getting paid’ or ‘How are we getting paid,’ they get threatened.”
So far, the city appears to be assigning a low priority to fixing the problem. Local 246 is in the process of filing formal grievances, says Nieves.
Meanwhile, says the union official, “They’re enforcing mandatory overtime. Mandatory overtime is only supposed to be in a state of emergency. They’re disciplining them … they want these people to work double shifts three days a week, and they are understaffed.”
For many of the employees that spoke to the Jersey City Times, the city, led by Shea, is setting up the JCPSCC to fail. His goal, they claim, is to allow service to deteriorate to the point that the public will support a takeover by IXP. They note that former IXP Vice President Adam Safir is the son of Howard Safir, a former New York Police Department commissioner who led the search to hire Shea in 2013.
Last November, the city council voted down a contract proposed by Shea that would have hired IXP again to conduct employee workshops, assess technology, and analyze service gaps at the JCPSCC. In rejecting the contract, Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano laid the problem at the feet of management. “The radio room is short 40 people, and they’re underpaid.”
Of concern to one employee is the lack of a protocol for “active shooter” scenarios. The police dispatchers simply don’t know what to tell responding officers to do in such a situation. “We have no active shooter policy for dispatchers … there’s no protocol…Right now, dispatchers must keep the police outside of an unsafe condition” until the Emergency Services Unit arrives. The employee fears a situation like the one that unfolded in Uvalde, Texas, where police remain outside a building or room while a shooter continues shooting unimpeded.
The overwork, mismanagement, and payment problems have led to a collapse of team spirit. “Morale has been gone for years. They’ve turned this into nothing but hardship. It’s a hostile work environment,” said a veteran of the JCPSCC. Said Nieves, “Morale is at zero.”
Mayor Fulop’s press secretary did not respond to an email seeking comment on the issues raised in this article.