For months, Urban County Council members have been hearing from employees of Lexington's enhanced 911 program who complain that long hours, limited time off and stressful working conditions threaten to compromise Lexington's safety.
After calling E-911 Director Dave Lucas to answer questions about understaffing, training and working conditions twice in the last five months, two council members said they will ask for an audit of the program.
"This is a life-safety issue," said council member Diane Lawless. "If we have a major event in Lexington and we are understaffed, it's really a problem. In many of these cases, minutes, seconds even, count."
Lawless and council member K.C. Crosbie said they have not yet decided whether to ask the city's internal auditors or an outside agency to conduct the review.
Crosbie said some E-911 workers have told her that if Lexington were to have another major plane crash or some other disaster, "they didn't feel confident they could handle that type of emergency."
Lexington's E-911 staffers received 215,000 emergency calls in 2009. The program is funded, in part, by Fayette County taxpayers who pay $2.19 a month for each land line telephone and 42 cents for each cell phone. Lucas, who has worked on E-911 technology since the mid-1990s, pushed for the tax to fund the program.
Lucas, who took over as director of Lexington's E-911 employees in 2006, said in an interview that the annual $6.5 million budget for the program calls for 76 full-time employees, but he has only 62. Because of upcoming retirements, that number will drop to 59 in July.
Lucas said he doesn't think the understaffing creates an unsafe environment in Lexington — as long as he can maintain current staffing levels.
"We've had many disasters, and we've handled them," Lucas said, "but we've only been able to do that with mandatory overtime. Our goal is to get additional staff."
Lucas said the problem is not a shortage of money, but finding qualified people who can cope with emergency calls and who can be called on to work various shifts that cover seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It's a sedentary job, he said, and "it's really stressful when you are busy."
Salaries range from $14 to $25 an hour.
Among the problems described to Lawless are such short staffing that employees are unable to take their full vacation time, employees being disciplined by supervisors for what are apparently minor infractions and inadequate training for workers.
Lucas acknowledged at a council intergovernmental committee meeting earlier this year that 11 employees had not received their full vacations. The problem has been going on for several years, he said.
He also agreed that some workers had not been happy with their working conditions and supervisors.
But he said changes had been made to address the vacation and management problems, and schedules had been handled by making sure no one is scheduled to work more than 12 hours on any one shift.
Lawless said she was concerned that "training has fallen behind what it should be" for supervisors.
Lucas did not dispute that, saying: "They can use more training." He added that since the council committee meetings, he has found training courses for two of three supervisors.
Council members also questioned Lucas about his use of temporary workers to man some E-911 phones.
Lucas said that, because the city budget calls for all E-911 employees to be full-time, those who want to work part-time have to be hired through a temporary employment agency.
But those temporary employees have the same training and requirements as those hired directly by the city, he said Friday.
Lucas said he is interviewing more potential E-911 workers.
Workers must have a high school diploma, as much as six months of training, background checks, psychological testing and drug and polygraph tests.
For several years, Lucas said, firefighters who do not have specific E-911 training have been taking emergency calls, but he has limited that.
In 2010, he said, firefighters have answered E-911 calls for a total of 36 hours.
Lucas said that of the 215,000 emergency calls and 325,000 administrative calls the E-911 centers received in 2009, there were three or four complaints each month.
Currently, 98 percent of calls in Lexington are answered within 20 seconds, according to Lucas.
Of the 18 calls in 2009 that took more than 50 seconds to answer, one call was from Mayor Jim Newberry. He called to report an apparent drunk driver, according to Newberry spokeswoman Susan Straub.
One of the others was from Lucas' mother, Lucas said.
Newberry does not think Lexington citizens are in danger because of the understaffing of E-911, Straub said.
"We exceed the national standard for promptness in answering calls, and we exceed published requirements for staffing levels," Straub said.
Asked whether Newberry would be in favor of an audit, she said: "The mayor supports the internal audit division, has increased its staffing and never opposes independent audits of government agencies or organizations that handle public dollars."
Rhonda Sears, who said she has been suspended from her job as an E-911 employee because she took too many sick days, has contacted council members with concerns about staffing.
"We have had more employees who have ... serious illnesses since we have had the scheduling that we have," Sears said in a March letter to council members.
The national turnover rate for workers at 911 communication centers is 19 percent. At a meeting of the council's intergovernmental committee, Lucas told council members that Lexington's turnover rate was 34 percent. Later, Lucas said he had miscalculated and the turnover rate was just 12.5 percent.
Lucas said he thinks staffing conditions would improve if he could bring fire and police E-911 workers under one roof. Plans to build a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center, which would have included an E-911 communications center, at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research Campus, have been put on hold because of the economy.
David Hill, who was taking calls in the Lexington police E-911 center on Friday, said "you know coming in" that the around-the-clock operation requires unusual hours.
Understaffing is a problem at many communications centers around the country and, when it happens, there needs to be a comprehensive analysis at the center, said Loredana Elsberry, a staff member at the Florida-based Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.
"You have to start ... asking why," Elsberry said. "Is there an interpersonal conflict? Is it attributed to mandated overtime? Is it because people are coming in and are not qualified? If you just focus on one variable, you might miss the bigger picture."
Lawless said the complaints she is getting from workers point to a combination of problems.
"As we start pulling the threads," she said, "the whole sweater has unraveled."