Employees of the Hudson County 911 call center have come forward to complain of understaffing and training deficiencies that they say pose a threat to public safety.
The call center, located in Secaucus, is responsible for answering 911 calls for Hoboken, Kearny, East Newark, West New York, Harrison, Union City, North Bergen, Guttenberg and Weehawken. It also takes call for the West Side Highway in Manhattan and from boats in the Hudson River.
“Hudson County is a shambles right now” said one call-taker. “We’re understaffed and overworked.”
The Hudson County center is also the back-up or “PSAP” for Jersey City. If a call to Jersey City’s 911 call center is not picked up after 10 rings, the call is routed to the county facility.
The center has had to close four times in the last year due to staffing issues, said one of the employees. When that happens, the calls are re-routed to the Jersey City call center which, according to reporting last week in the Jersey City Times, suffers from severe understaffing and mismanagement.
“New Year’s Eve we were shut down because we were short-staffed. So Jersey City had to take our calls and we service all of Hudson County” noted an employee.
Even when staffed, 911 call-takers at the Hudson County facility face excruciating wait times fielding calls re-routed to them from Jersey City residents.
County 911 call-takers will record the information and, with the caller still on the line, call the Jersey City Police Department’s direct number 201 547 5477. “We’ll get a message that you have reached the Jersey City Police. If this is a 911 emergency, please hang up and dial 911. If not, please stay on the line. All operators are busy” said one.
“There’s times when there’s a shooting or a car accident or a domestic and you’re on hold with these people who have a life and death emergency and we’re waiting for someone to pick up the phone. It’s very frustrating.”
“It takes us 20 minutes to give Jersey City a call” said another call-taker. “If it’s a Friday night and there’s a shooting or a major event, it’s gonna take a long time…there’s recordings with people yelling at us, cursing at us.”
Fearing retaliation, the employees of the call center spoke to the Jersey City Times on the condition that their names not be used.
Staffing and training issues are largely to blame for the problems, they say. The center currently only has four of the required six supervisors and is often down by one or two call-takers on each shift.
New hires are given training upon hiring but are often, they say, thrown into handling calls before they are ready. “They just expect you to take the test, listen to calls and pray for the best…We have new people taking calls that aren’t well prepared. They’re hanging by a thin thread.”
One call-taker reflected wistfully on the skill level at their facility. “When you call New York City they know exactly what to do…those operators. They’re trained. You can hear it. The difference between us and them. I’m sad to say that.”
An employee worries about what would happen in the case of a mass casualty event. Referring to the recent toxic train derailment in Ohio, they said “We are not trained to handle calls like that. I don’t think Jersey City is. It’s a major flaw in system. Until someone in power gets hurt, that’s when they’ll take it seriously.”
A spokesperson for the Hudson County Sheriff responded that “The Sheriff’s Office is aware of operational challenges that have arisen within the 911 Call Center and we are working closely with the County of Hudson Law Department and Personnel Department, as well as outside legal counsel, to complete a comprehensive review of its operations, workplace culture, training and management. Sheriff Schillari is committed to ensuring that Hudson County residents have access to the emergency response services they need and will take whatever steps are necessary to address any challenges facing the call center.”
One of the call-takers had advice for residents. “Anywhere you go, make sure you have the local number for the police department. Don’t call 911 directly. You have a better chance of getting through.”
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