Where Did All the Dispatchers Go?

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.

One major organization is the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). In August, 2000, APCO formed the Communications Center Staffing Crisis Task Force. Focusing on recruitment and retention, the task force recommended several solutions in their guideline, Best Practices. After being presented to the APCO Executive Council, Project RETAINS (Responsive Efforts To Address Integral Needs in Staffing, formerly known as Project 40) was established. Currently partnered with the Denver Research Institute (DRI), the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), Project RETAINS' members are researching and developing a national standard for communication centers in the United States. In the meantime, Project RETAINS has a few practical suggestions to address problems now:

Recruitment

  • Recruitment of 9-1-1/PSCC must be positive, proactive, deliberate and accentuate the public safety, public service, and exciting, life-saving, unique and personally satisfying aspects of the job.
  • Utilize appealing, descriptive materials, i.e. announcements, applications, placards, photographs, brochures, videos, public service announcements.
  • 9-1-1/PSCC personnel success stories of lives saved, unusual stories, etc. should be heralded in the media so that the public understands more fully the important role 9-1-1 calltakers and dispatchers play.

Retention

  • Basic compensation should also consider and be "benchmarked" to other jobs in the private sector that require similar skill, ability, responsibility, authority, training and certification.
  • Consider having higher rates of basic pay and overtime pay apply when working with less than pre-established staffing levels.
  • 9-1-1/Public Safety Supervisors, Managers, and Directors should make every effort and seize every opportunity using every means available to bring positive recognition for both daily routine jobs done well and exceptional performance.
  • Allow for employee breaks.
  • Utilize work schedules that consider agency and employee personal and family needs.
  • Show sensitivity to the need for employees to take leave.

Most emergency communications operators love their work. Helping citizens and officers on a daily basis gives them a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Although staffing shortages may strain the relationship between a dispatcher and her job, many solutions exist. Law enforcement agencies and organizations are working together to find answers. Emergency communication operators can help too. Talk positively to others about your work, encourage quality individuals to apply and assist in committees designed to address staffing concerns. Very few jobs are as rewarding as emergency communications. When staffing issues begin to encroach on the rewards, instead of complaining, fix it.

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