IOWA CITY, Iowa — An Iowa sheriff has fired a 911 dispatcher who was caught sleeping on the job twice in three months, the second time in such a deep slumber that she missed repeated messages from co-workers, according to state records.
Marianne Lynch, who worked the overnight shift at the Dickinson County communications center, was found sleeping, wrapped in a blanket last month, according to a judge's ruling that denied her unemployment benefits on Monday. Lynch had slept through phone calls, radio inquiries and intercom messages from a jail employee and other officer communications — but none that involved emergency situations.
"Thank God," Sheriff Greg Baloun said in an interview Thursday.
The communications center in Spirit Lake handles calls for police, fire and ambulance service for municipalities in Dickinson County, which is home to Lake Okoboji and a popular tourism destination. Lynch had worked there since January 2009 and was on the overnight shift for most of her tenure.
Lynch did not return messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
On Nov. 5, jailer Amber Bailey was trying to contact Lynch to unlock a door electronically so she could leave the jail and enter the communications center. But her repeated attempts to reach Lynch through phone, radio and intercom failed.
Instead, Bailey was forced to obtain and use keys that are meant for emergency situations so that she could leave. She found Lynch sleeping and called her name four times before Lynch woke up. "You're sleeping again," Bailey told her, and later reported the incident to superiors, the ruling said.
Baloun approved Lynch's firing later that day, noting it was her second such infraction within months. Lynch had received a five-day suspension after she was caught sleeping on the job in August.
Lynch, who turned 54 on Friday, applied for unemployment benefits after her dismissal. County officials opposed her application, saying that she had been fired for misconduct and was therefore ineligible.
In testimony in the case, Lynch admitted that she had been sleeping on those two occasions. But she argued that her colleagues were no longer "team players" because they had stopped covering for each other when one fell asleep. She claimed she had been unfairly singled out, claiming that other employees had been caught sleeping and were not fired.
In the interview, Baloun said one other dispatcher on the overnight shift has been caught sleeping and was disciplined.
The instances of dispatchers sleeping on the job surprised Dickinson County board chairman David Gottsche, who told the AP, "I'm not familiar with it at all."
Instances of sleeping on the job are rare and unacceptable, but dispatchers are often stressed and overworked as counties add jail responsibilities to their plate, said Nancy Brady, who trained dispatchers at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy for 15 years. Working overnight in an office for eight hours or more can make it hard for any employee to stay awake, she said.
"It's not right, but I'm not going to say, 'oh my gosh, she's a terrible person,'" Brady said.
In her ruling Monday, Administrative Law Judge Julie Elder sided with the county by denying unemployment benefits. She said Lynch had "a tremendous responsibility to the public, the police department and the fire department."
"To be sleeping on that job is inexcusable and irresponsible," Elder wrote. "Additionally, the claimant had already been caught sleeping once months earlier but the employer gave her a second chance to correct her behavior. The claimant did not just nod off in her chair for a minute but was deeply asleep, with a blanket around her, and was difficult to wake up."
Lynch's actions showed an "intentional and substantial disregard of the employer's interests and the employee's duties and obligations," Elder wrote.