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County pulls plug on cable for dispatchers

August 18, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

Washington County's 911 dispatchers can no longer watch pay cable stations while on the job, but their boss says that decision is unrelated to this month's vote for union representation.

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On Aug. 5, 15 Washington County fire and rescue communication employees voted 11-4 to be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67 (AFSCME).

Six days later, County Emergency Operations Manager Ron Karn signed a document ordering the employees to stop watching premium cable movie channels in the dispatch center.

"The timing was bad but I did not set the date for the (union) vote," Karn said. He said he had been intending to issue the order for a month or two.

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The timing was "poor," County Administrator Rodney Shoop said, but the events were not connected.

Antietam Cable provides free basic cable, which includes the Weather Channel, to county departments with public safety functions, such as the Hagerstown Regional Airport, the Washington County Highway Department and Fire and Rescue Communications, Shoop said.

Each of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue companies also get the service.

For at least a year, some of the dispatch center employees have chipped in about $27 a month to get pay cable stations such as HBO and Showtime, Karn said.

The practice was halted because of the type of fare that runs on some of the stations.

It is a violation of county policy for county employees while on the job to view programming or read literature that is sexually explicit, Karn said.

Some movies shown on the premium movie channels are R-rated. The programming on cable channels has become more racy over time, Karn said.

"We did not think that was appropriate," Shoop said.

Karn said his decision to forbid viewing of some channels was sparked in part by a nationwide increase in the number of legal complaints involving employees watching such programs in the workplace, Karn said.

Employees questioned the sequence of events, said James Bestpitch, AFSCME staff representative.

"The timing sticks out and screams for attention," said Bestpitch.

Bestpitch said, however, he did not object to the county's decision.

"We can't argue with that logic," Bestpitch said. "We have to protect our work environment against those liabilities. We have females and males working together. We don't support anything that has a liability attached to it."

The television is in the room where the emergency dispatchers work, dispatching emergency personnel in response to 911 calls. The sound on the television is set to automatically turn off when calls are being dispatched, Karn said.

About 50,000 calls the county's emergency 911 number are made annually, an average of about 136 a day, he said.

The dispatch center, which is in the Washington County District Court building, needs cable so dispatchers can watch the Weather Channel for storm information, Karn said.

"I can't have an Office of Emergency Management that is cut off from the outside world," he said.

From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. employees can watch only the Weather Channel and CNN, he said. During the slower evening hours they can watch other programming provided it does not interfere with their work, he said.

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