The New First Responder Crisis: Not Enough Dispatchers

A dispatcher works at a desk station with a variety of screens used by those who take 911 emergency calls in Roswell, Ga.

A dispatcher works at a desk station with a variety of screens used by those who take 911 emergency calls in Roswell, Ga. AP Photo

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COMMENTARY | What can governments do to recruit and keep the “first” first responders?

In recent years there’s been a great deal written—some of it by us—about local governments failing to recruit enough employees to fill some of the most vital public sector jobs, including police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and so on.

People intuitively know the implications of these shortages, expecting there will be first responders available to pull them from car wrecks, rescue them from burning houses and administer life-saving drugs in the case of an overdose. But we’ve come across a less-noticed shortage that is just as critical to residents’ safety: The widespread difficulties many communities are experiencing in hiring and retaining emergency dispatchers, the men and women who pull together the information that police, EMS and firefighters need to quickly reach and help people in trouble. 

Take Berkeley, California, where a high turnover rate has resulted in staff vacancies. “We run the risk of not being able to pick up a call quickly enough when someone calls 911 and that is concerning,” says Jenny Wong, the city’s elected auditor.  “It’s a public safety risk.”

Last spring, an audit showed that the city’s communication center had failed to meet California standards for answering emergency calls in two out of five recent years. One ongoing problem has been keeping dispatch positions filled. While the 2018 city budget in Berkeley authorized 28 full-time dispatch positions, toward the end of the fiscal year only 23.5 were filled—a 16 percent vacancy rate.

There are more than 6,000 dispatch communication centers in the U.S., generally locally run, though some states provide services and support. The nature of the job varies from center to center. In some places, individuals who answer 911 calls—call takers—hold a distinct position from dispatchers who are more likely to spend their time in radio contact with fire stations or police units. Elsewhere, those roles are combined.

Why aren’t there enough dispatchers? They’re safe enough jobs, after all, involving desks and phones, not guns and hoses. But the job also comes with a high level of stress, often mandatory overtime and, in many parts of the country, low pay given the technically complex and multifaceted demands of the job.

In Utah, Captain Travis Trotta, director of the state’s six state-owned emergency communication centers, struggles to compete with local governments for applicants. With a starting salary of $15 an hour, lower than many locally-run public safety communication centers, his six centers saw a turnover rate of 37 percent in fiscal year 2019.

“People could get more from other jobs with less stress and more pay,” he says. “You can go to Home Depot and get that same $15 an hour.”

Many centers report an increase in the volume of calls at the same time that the number of authorized dispatch positions has declined. In Lexington, Kentucky, for example, the city’s population has grown 23 percent since 1998 and call volume increased 55 percent. Meanwhile, staffing is about 20 percent lower right now than it was at the end of the 1990s, largely due to cutbacks during the intervening recessions. “We’ve never picked back up,” says Robert Stack, director of Enhanced 911 in Lexington. His request to the City Council to authorize six additional dispatchers was turned down for the 2020 city budget.

But the shortage of authorized positions is only part of the problem. With a metropolitan-area unemployment rate of 3 percent, Lexington’s Enhanced 911 has a problem hiring even for the positions they are allowed to fill.

The increasing complexity of the job has also affected the hiring process. In Scottsdale, a dispatcher must be able to type, listen to a caller, accurately capture information and read maps well. Scottsdale has whittled down hiring time from four months to about three, but many other Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs, as they are commonly called, find that hiring a new employee can take six months or more. Given the emotionally draining nature of the work, keeping employees on staff is a constant challenge.

 “You see a lot of post-traumatic stress for dispatchers. . .  Nobody calls 911 because they’re having a good day,” says April Heinze, 911 & PSAP Operations Director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “Typically, it is their absolute worst day.”

Increasing need for training given ever changing technology complicates the hiring dilemma. “As recently as ten years ago, most 911 calls were received by someone answering a phone call. But the role has changed tremendously,” says Karen Sutherland, manager of the Scottsdale, Arizona dispatch center. Today, dispatchers must be trained to handle phone calls, text messages, videos, maps and a wide variety of technological platforms. The expense of training a new hire—almost $50,000 according to Utah’s Trotta—adds to the pain of rapid turnover.

There are solutions: It helps to change these positions from being regarded as largely clerical to ones that are part of a first responder team. In some places, this is more than just a shift in mindset, but a designation that means dispatchers receive law-enforcement style retirement benefits. Utah, for example, puts dispatchers in the same retirement plan as sworn officers, calling them “the first” first responders.

Last month Pitkin County, Colorado’s dispatchers were recognized as first responders. The change gives them better access to mental health services and training grants. “Emergency dispatchers are every bit as critical in managing a crisis as our law enforcement officers, paramedics and firefighters are and they are equally impacted emotionally,” Brett Loeb, Emergency Dispatch 911 Commander, told KAJX, Aspen Public Radio in October.

“Dispatch hasn’t had a lot of attention in recent years,” says Scottsdale’s Karen Sutherland. “We’re starting to get some attention on the changing role and starting to recognize the pressure that these employees are under.”

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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