When an emergency happens, quick thinking by 911 dispatchers can mean the difference between life and death.

In northwest Indiana, nearly 100 emergency dispatchers in Lake County, Ind., direct firefighters, ambulances and police to dangerous scenes. Many have logged decades on the job. But a new law last year that sought to upgrade response times in the county merged all area responders under the same umbrella. Now, instead of working for 17 separate cities and townships, each with different pay and benefit packages, the dispatchers will work out of a state-of-the-art response station as some of the newest employees of Lake County’s government.

The change has come with both risks and rewards, said Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21 Business Representative Byron Bonham.

“This is great news for the area in terms of safety – but there’s a downside,” he said. Namely, all the employees have had to essentially reapply for their jobs. The changeover has also caused confusion about seniority rules, vacation schedules, overtime and a host of other issues.

In January, some of the dispatchers reached out to Local 21, which is about an hour’s drive northwest across the state border. What followed was a smooth effort to bring bargaining rights to the employees, who voted 68-4 for representation in an NLRB-sponsored election on June 16.

 “They were just looking for a voice,” said Bonham, who characterized the talks between county management and the workforce as amicable. “The county has been cooperative with other employees who are with the Teamsters and the Fraternal Order of Police – they followed the rules of a campaign to the letter.” Bonham said the county shunned hosting captive audience meetings or engaging in negative dealings. “We all acted like professionals,” he said.

 At the same time, consolidating the work crew into one central location does have some advantages, Bonham said. New computer systems, software and upgraded equipment will make many tasks easier, and having a larger group of co-workers will reduce the staffing challenges that can arise at a two- or three-person workplace, as some employees had been used to.

The workers are also looking to address some proposed new rules, scheduling changes and the possibility of mandatory overtime in contract talks. “Now we have more than 90 people who are all looking to speak with one voice.”

Local 21 Recording Secretary Bob Przybylinski expressed support for the new unit. “We represent some 911 employees in Chicago, and it’s always exciting for us to be able to work with government employees who help keep our cities and towns safer.”

Bonham thanked Gary and Hammond, Ind., Local 697 leaders for their time and resources and said that both the area Carpenters local and the Northwest Indiana Federation of Labor are helping ensure a win-win process for the workers and the county. “Because of everyone’s efforts, there was no negative campaigning and everyone was positive. The county has said how much they respect organized labor – not just the IBEW, but everybody.”

Local 21 Business Manager Paul Wright said he looks forward to contract negotiations. “The dispatchers protect the county’s citizens every day,” he said. “We look forward to working with county representatives to negotiate a contract that rewards them for their service to the residents of Lake County.”

To read more, visit the unit’s Facebook page.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Wikimedia user Sarah Ewart.