Dispatcher shortage must be addressed

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about Douglas County’s failure to recruit enough employees to fill some of the most vital public sector jobs, including law enforcement and dispatchers. Even the local fire departments have struggled with staffing in the past. 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 or other medical emergencies.

But we’ve come across a less-noticed shortage that is just as critical to residents’ safety: The widespread difficulties our community is experiencing in hiring and retaining emergency dispatchers, the men and women who pull together the information that police, EMS, and firefighters need to reach and help people in trouble quickly.

When you call 911, you expect the phone to be answered immediately, knowing that at the same time, a team of trained professionals works through your emergency to get the right people to the scene. Our dispatchers in Douglas County are some of the most remarkable and dedicated people we could ask for. They are the first, first responders. Without them, your call for help goes unanswered. Our dispatchers have saved countless lives in Douglas County, and they are rarely, if ever, recognized for their efforts. There is even less conversation when critical staffing issues occur in our dispatch center. Is this being covered up by county officials? Unfortunately, due to low pay, poor work schedule, and poor county leadership, dispatch currently operates at only half of the minimum staffing. That’s right, half. Behind the curtain of this beautiful community is a failing local government that cannot hire or retain employees. Public safety is the fabric of a healthy and vibrant community. Yet, daily, the foundation of public safety in our community is falling apart.

More than 6,000 dispatch communication centers exist in the U.S., generally, locally run. So 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 an extremely high-stress level, often mandatory overtime, and, in Douglas County, low pay when you consider the technically complex and multifaceted demands of the job.

Our dispatchers have a tremendously difficult job, even at full staffing. Our dispatch center handles 911 calls south to Bear Valley, west to Stateline in Tahoe, east to Topaz Lake, north to Topsy Lane, and of course, all of Minden and Gardnerville. They serve as the primary dispatch center for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Washoe Tribe Police, Tahoe Douglas Fire District, East Fork Fire Protection District, Alpine County Fire Department, and Alpine County Sheriff’s Office. In addition, they handle mutual aid for Lyon County, Carson City, and Mono County. When a 911 call comes in, our dispatchers need to process the call, type in all required information, find the location of the emergency, determine what resources are needed, dispatch those resources, track them on GPS, give responding resources all the necessary information, all while staying on the line with the 911 caller to provide them with instructions and keep them calm. Keep in mind this is just for one call. What happens when there are multiple 911 calls? Does this sound stressful and overwhelming? It sure is, especially when staffing is half what it should be.

The minimum staffing for trained dispatchers is 12 in Douglas County. Currently, there are only six fully trained dispatchers. It has been over two years since our dispatch center has been fully staffed. With an attrition rate of nearly 50 percent for newly hired dispatchers, it seems to be a hole we may never get out of. Staffing is so inadequate that for months, from 3-7 a.m. only one dispatcher is working.

Recently, the county manager and HR have made a change to this. They decided to shorten an individual’s time in the dispatch center to two hours each night to ensure the employee gets a lunch break. While that is a step in the right direction, that’s like putting a band-aid on an arterial bleed. If someone needs to use the restroom, who will answer your call for help? The county is putting the community and that dispatcher at high risk. Leaving one dispatcher to answer 911 calls, ask required questions, diagnose the emergency, radio the appropriate first responders, talk to the first responders, and stay on the line with the 911 caller. Imagine how challenging that is for an individual. Does that level of stress sound appealing to dispatchers? For most, it’s not. The result of this staffing shortage for our dispatchers is increased stress levels, more time away from home and families, and an increased desire to seek employment elsewhere.

Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies assist in the dispatch center to fill the staffing void during this crisis. This is because they need more dispatch employees to answer 911 calls. That’s right; instead of patrolling the streets, our deputies must answer phones in dispatch. In addition to all of this, our dispatchers are paid less than most other neighboring agencies.

It is common sense that to hire and retain quality employees, pay and benefits must be competitive with neighboring agencies.

Even after a 9 percent raise, newly hired dispatchers make about $22 per hour. Two weeks ago, a new recruitment flyer offered a $500 signing bonus after six months of employment and a starting wage of $25 an hour. While this is fantastic, Douglas County confirmed to Douglas County Employees Association that current employees would not immediately be brought to this new wage. They are creating a gap between newly hired employees and current employees.

Dispatch supervisors, who do not receive overtime, constantly work extra hours to keep the dispatch center afloat. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they often work for free. In fact, in 2022 alone, the dispatch supervisors have worked hundreds of hours for free. One supervisor worked nearly 300 unpaid hours serving our community. Without them, the dispatch center would have been empty.

Seasoned and experienced dispatchers are leaving for agencies that pay more. As a result, we find ourselves in a staffing crisis. With inflation peaking at 7.1 percent and the median home price over $500,000 in Douglas County, pay matters. Our dispatchers have bills to pay, and we cannot expect them to stick around without proper compensation, poor work conditions, and county management and HR that don’t care.

Between our dispatch center and our Sheriff’s Office, the County Manager and County Commissioners have made it clear that they have no desire to pay their public safety employees a fair and competitive wage. We are one of the wealthiest counties in Nevada. Yet, Douglas County pays its dispatchers and sheriff’s deputies some of the lowest wages. Additionally, our communications infrastructure is some of the most antiquated in the region and desperately needs updating. So not only does the county not pay its employees, but it also does not invest in the infrastructure required for first responders to communicate effectively. Douglas County contracts out its dispatcher-communications services to Tahoe Douglas Fire, East Fork Fire, Washoe Tribe, and the Alpine Co Fire Department and Sheriff’s office bringing the county in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. If this money is not going to wages, staffing, or infrastructure, where is it going?

The lack of staffing and infrastructure in Douglas County is a disaster waiting to happen. It puts the lives of taxpayers and first responders at a much higher risk.

More than half of all home fires with civilian death occur between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. This falls in the window where your Douglas dispatch center is staffed with one employee. In a study done by the National Fire Protection Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the United States Fire Administration, and the International Association of Fire Fighters, 19.7 percent of line of duty deaths and near misses were directly related to a communication issue.

Everyone reading this needs to understand how serious the situation we face as a community is.

Unfortunately, the county manager and commissioners have done a fantastic job hiding the truth.

As taxpayers, you should all be concerned. This is a call to action. Call the county manager and ask why his office has let this become the crisis it has.

Tell our county commissioners that this is not why we elected them.

They are the voice of the taxpayers, and they need to hear us. The county manager and commissioners should be ashamed of themselves for letting this situation spiral out of control.

Leadership is what this county needs, and leadership is what we do not have. As first responders, we fear the day that someone dies because of the failures of our county leadership.

This letter was written and endorsed by East Fork Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 3726, Tahoe Douglas Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 2441 and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Protective Association


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