When you’re faced with an emergency and need to call 911, you need someone to pick up. But those on the other end of the line are facing their own emergency.
Next week, Twin Falls, Idaho, will have only eight dispatchers on staff. Any less than that, and it’s not possible to adequately operate the center, Director Tami Lauda said.
The center is budgeted to have 12 dispatchers, but it’s rarely fully staffed. In the past three years, the highest number of dispatchers employed has been 11 — on paper, Lauda said.
“It’s forever fluctuating,” she said.
At a recent Twin Falls City Council meeting, as the budget was presented for the Human Resources department, the No. 1 issue for the department was staffing the Communications Center, Lauda said. Having a sufficient number of public safety communicators, or dispatchers, available to answer those calls continues to be a challenge.
National statistics shed some light on the issues of hiring and retaining dispatchers, Lauda said. Only 10% of the public has the skills to be an emergency dispatcher. And among those hired, just 43% make it through the extensive training.
That includes 21 to 25 weeks of in-house training, in addition to the required Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training two-week course. Just last month, Lauda said, POST added an online version of the training to supplement the twice-yearly sessions.
Newly hired dispatchers are required to obtain their certification within 18 months.
“It is a difficult job,” Lauda said.
Although dispatchers are a part of the “three-legged stool” that also includes police and firefighters, they’re often paid less than their first-responder counterparts. Dispatchers in Twin Falls start at $18.04 an hour. As they complete phases of training, Lauda said, they can jump two pay grades in the first year. That puts them at the same wage as a new police officer. The job does come with great benefits, she said.
While they aren’t seen by the public the way police officers and firefighters are, dispatchers have essential duties.
“They are masters of triage,” Lauda said. The dispatchers must readily grasp what is needed, what department to send, what apparatus is required and what priority a call should be given.
In this high-energy profession, Lauda said, it’s all about asking the right questions.
Depending on where a 911 call comes from in south-central Idaho, it may be connected to the Twin Falls City Communications Center, the Southern Idaho Regional Communications Center in Jerome or Blaine County Emergency Communications.
SIRCOMM dispatched 10,300 calls for service during July, said Rebecca Simpson, who took over as director last month.
The need to hire is constant, Simpson said. There are 15 full- and part-time public safety communicators on staff, and three dispatchers on duty at all times, with four preferred.
The agency handles 911 calls for about 40 agencies in Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln and Twin Falls counties.
The sheer number of agencies is a huge workload, Simpson said. Other challenges include covering for dispatchers during their time off.
New employees must learn the law enforcement and fire radio systems, the phone systems, the Computer Aided Dispatch system and how to look up data.
Being able to multitask, with six computer monitors at a desk, being quick, creative and empathetic are essential to the job, Simpson said.
“It takes a special person to do this job,” she said.
As a small agency supported by user fees paid by the agencies served and the 911 fee charged on phone bills, SIRCOMM tries to remain competitive in a market with very low unemployment.
SIRCOMM offers $16.74 per hour, plus benefits for dispatchers.
“People don’t get into this for the money,” Simpson said.
Full-time employees work 12-hour shifts. That can be a challenge for those with children, especially those on the graveyard shift, Simpson said. And, since SIRCOMM and other dispatch centers must be staffed every day of the year, employees may work holidays and weekends, too.
Despite the challenges, the job can be quite fulfilling, Simpson said. Dispatchers leave work each day knowing they’ve made a difference in somebody’s life.
Robin Stellers, director of Blaine County Emergency Communications, has had a similar experience.
“The emergency communications officer profession is very rewarding but can be challenging in many ways,” Stellers said.
Staffing issues for dispatchers in the county involve the remote location, harsh winter weather conditions and a higher cost of living. Because of the difficulty in hiring, Blaine County Emergency Communications promotes its positions locally, statewide and nationally through a number of sources.
Offering a starting wage of $20.61 per hour and benefits, a hiring incentive was initiated this year to attract potential employees, Stellers said. Totaling $4,500, applicants hired by Blaine County Emergency Communications receive $2,500 when they start, and the remaining $2,000 after successfully completing the training and certification process.
“The role of the emergency communications officer is ever-evolving, and I believe the processes to recruit, hire and retain staff will need to continue to evolve with the position,” she said.
That evolution may include providing innovative equipment — like at the Twin Falls City Communications Center, where the desks adjust for standing or even walking on a treadmill — or promoting a positive culture of teamwork, as Stellars tries to encourage.
The hiring process itself, though, will continue to closely mirror law enforcement, with criminal background checks, psychological and physical tests, drug screening and polygraph tests.
Those who join the teams of dedicated dispatchers in south-central Idaho can be assured they are serving their community in a vital way.
Lauda summed up the dispatchers’ importance: “These guys are the rock stars.”