By Greg Argos

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia’s 911 dispatchers say they are inadequately protected against COVID-19 while on the job. They voiced their concerns to city leaders Thursday night.

“We are the first line of defense,” Michelle Aikens-Lynn said. “The first person they call is 911 and that comes through Philadelphia 911 police dispatch.”

Aikens-Lynn has been a dispatcher there for more than two decades.

“We love our job, we love what we do,” Aikens-Lynn said.

But she and others are concerned about working conditions at the dispatch room at Philly police headquarters.

“We basically have become the collateral damage of the police department,” she said.

In a Zoom meeting with city leaders Thursday afternoon, Aikens-Lynn and other dispatchers outlined what they claim are dangerous working conditions for a pandemic, including cramped spaces and not enough barriers.

“Right now we have I think six dividers for 43 people. There is no way possible the room is set up we could ever be six feet apart,” Aikens-Lynn said.

On top of that, she says dispatchers work with partners who need to coordinate and communicate between the caller and first responders sent to the scene.

“It’s not like you can just get up from dispatch and walk away like you’re in a relay race. You tap the next person, you keep going. You have to physically sit there and physically explain to them it is frowned upon if we sit and talk to our partners, if we sit and assist our partners,” Aikens-Lynn said.

To date, more than 30 dispatchers have contracted the virus and those not sick are working long hours.

“We are working beyond our hours. Sometimes we do twelves hours voluntarily. It’s never enough. We’re tired,” Aikens-Lynn said.

In a statement, a police spokesperson writes, in part:

“Like many of our districts and units within the city, police radio is experiencing many of the ongoing challenges related to COVID-19. We will continue to work with our police communications dispatchers to ensure that we make improvements to their workplace experience,” spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp said.

Those changes, according to the spokesperson, include creating steady shifts and hiring more dispatchers.

Aikens-Lynn hopes the improvements help the people who are answering the call when you need help the most.

“We hear every mother’s cry when their son gets shot and killed. We hear every father’s cry when something happens and we are the first ones they talk to,” she said.

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