Skagit County's understaffed emergency dispatch center is forcing some workers to choose between sleep and exercise.

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MOUNT VERNON, Wash. (AP) — Skagit County’s 911 system is struggling with understaffing and forced overtime that can increase employee stress and burnout.

The approximately 30 workers at the emergency dispatch center worked a total of 17,000 hours of overtime last year, and they are on pace for similar hours this year, the Skagit Valley Herald reported.

Mandated overtime and a budget that is too tight for equipment upgrades are compounding the stress dispatchers face, Skagit 911 director Helen Rasmussen said. The center would need 39 dispatchers to avoid mandated overtime, but it’s only budgeted for 33 positions, Rasmussen said. Because of high burnout and high turnover, the center typically only has 30 on staff at any given time, she said.

To staff radios and take emergency calls, employees need to work four 12-hour shifts per week and often must put in additional overtime.

Dispatcher Melissa Heller said she regularly misses family events, including Christmas and her grandfather’s 89th birthday party.

“Something has to give,” Heller said. “I’m choosing sleep over exercise or maybe my family.”

Rasmussen blames the staffing troubles on a 2003 change in the payment structure by Skagit’s Emergency Management Council, the governing body for Skagit 911. Previously, fire and police departments and emergency medical services paid the center a $43 fee for each call they responded to. In 2003, the county adopted a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to support the dispatch center, but it also drastically reduced the per-call fee.

The problem with the change became apparent beginning with the 2008 recession, when sales tax revenues plummeted but call volumes kept increasing.

In addition, Skagit 911 is a mid-sized dispatch center that earns just a little too much money to qualify for much of the state financial aid to small dispatch centers.

County council members say they are aware of the problem and working to fix it. Rasmussen has requested an increase in the per-call fee. Another possibility is hiking up the sales tax another one-tenth of 1 percent.

“Raising per-call fees puts the burden on other emergency services,” Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said. “Another tax would need to go through the Legislature and then to a vote. There is no overnight fix.”


Information from: Skagit Valley Herald,