Where Did All the Dispatchers Go?

Decreases in applicants, high private-sector pay and inadequate recruiting have led to emergency communication operators being placed on the endangered species list. When you call, who's going to answer?

One of the most prevalent concerns in law enforcement today is staffing. Agencies fight over coveted personnel, offering incentives such as sign-on bonuses, mortgage assistance and moving allowances. This is occurring in an occupation where only ten years ago potential officers sent out a dozen applications and held their breath, praying someone--anyone would hire them. But the field of law enforcement changed. Where once an officer worried about whether he could get a job, now the main worry is whether or not he will ever see another day off. This phenomenon not only affects sworn personnel, but civilian ones as well.

Job postings for police communications operators are also plentiful. Officer.com has 109 positions listed in this category. Even the oldest, in Seguin (TX), listed in June, 2004, is still open until filled. Many of the others use similar terms, including "on-going recruitment" and "on a continuous basis." Departments have begun offering incentive pay. Sequin offers a hiring incentive for experience and Lawrenceville (Metro Atlanta, GA) offers a $2,000 incremental hiring bonus. In a job with adequate pay, benefits, and personal satisfaction, where did all the dispatchers go?

Several factors affect staffing. Economics, such as a drop in unemployment rates and an increase in private sector pay has heavily impacted applicants. Technology is another huge issue. Operators no longer answer one phone and jot penciled notes onto a notepad. A visit to most centers reveals consoles covered in various computer components. Unfortunately, the change from manual to highly technical job expectations did not include correspondingly high compensation. Many technically-savvy individuals opted for private sector jobs which pay more. Along with this, many emergency communications center employees are leaving for the same reason. Retention, in addition to recruitment problems, adds an additional strain.

While less people apply for communication positions, many are leaving. Normal departures, such as retirement, stretch centers thin. Due to increased problems relating to mandatory overtime, disability and stress departures have increased. All of these issues put staffing shortages at a critical level. The implications to operators and the public are hefty.

Three main consequences lie at the heart of staffing shortages: operator health, public safety and taxes. The last of these, consequences to the taxpayer, revolves around the amount of money departments are paying to cover overtime.

According to LasVegasNow.com, the Las Vegas Metro communications center pays $30,000 per week in mandatory overtime to cover 47 vacant positions. An average full-time employee's salary is $65,000 a year. Although an issue for the richest of municipalities, this unavoidable cost has to be stripped from somewhere else. Who wants to decide whether the town library or the senior center has to be cut?

Another consequence of staffing shortages is public safety. In March, 2006, the 33 percent staff shortage impacted the Santa Fe (NM) center when a woman drove her truck into a busy medical clinic, killing three people and injuring eight others. The 9-1-1 calls were coming in, but they sat in the queue. There wasn't anyone to answer them. Many departments don't even want to articulate what would happen if a major emergency, such as another terrorist attack, were to occur in their jurisdiction.

A final consequence is the effect on operators' health. Many operators are working 60+ hours per week. This often leads to low morale, poor eating and sleeping habits, strained relationships and poor work quality. A department needs to have a body at the console, but is it advantageous when that body is tired, malnourished and stressed to the point of explosion? Or quitting? Solutions to staffing shortages have to be found. Thankfully, many departments and major organizations are answering the call to find them.

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