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It’s not just police officers. 911 dispatchers are also in short supply

Kayla White, a Washington State Patrol dispatcher, sits at her console in the Tacoma communications office. Most weeks she works three 12-hour days, in addition to two other regular 8-hour days, to help covering ongoing staffing shortages. In addition, she and her colleagues now handle calls east of the Cascades after the Wenatchee communications center closed due to a lack of staffing.
Austin Jenkin
Kayla White, a Washington State Patrol dispatcher, sits at her console in the Tacoma communications office. Most weeks she works three 12-hour days, in addition to two other regular eight-hour days, to help cover ongoing staffing shortages. In addition, she and her colleagues now handle calls east of the Cascades after the Wenatchee communications center closed due to a lack of staffing.

Earlier this summer, the Washington State Patrol did something it’s never done before: close one of its eight regional communication centers used to answer 911 calls and dispatch troopers and other first responders to emergencies.

The center, located in Wenatchee, had been plagued for years by understaffing and the situation showed no sign of improvement. So, the decision was made to pull the plug and route those calls to other centers elsewhere in the state.

The shuttering of the Wenatchee dispatch center is a dramatic indicator of a widespread staffing problem that’s putting pressure on 911 centers in Washington and nationally. As with many industries, the field of public safety communications has experienced the fallout of the COVID pandemic and the so-called “Great Resignation.”

“I would say that it is close to a crisis and in some areas it may be a crisis,” said April Heinze of the National Emergency Number Association.

Prior to the pandemic, Heinze estimated there was a 15 to 20 percent vacancy rate among 911 dispatchers. Now, she pegs it at more than 30 percent with some areas much higher.

The Washington State Patrol is among the agencies feeling the problem acutely. It currently has nearly 50 communication officer openings at its seven remaining centers, according to data provided by the agency. That’s a vacancy rate of approximately 40 percent. Three of the Patrol’s communications offices — in Bellevue, Yakima and Marysville — are less than 50 percent staffed.

“It's tough right now,” said Jeff Hursh, who manages the communications center in Tacoma.

The dispatcher shortage and the closure of the Wenatchee center are having a ripple effect across the state. For example, one of Hursh’s dispatchers in Tacoma now handles calls for the Ellensburg area located 120 miles to the east and across the Cascades.

In addition, dispatchers are having to fill mandatory overtime shifts every week to fill the gaps. Others are being sent elsewhere in the state to backfill dispatch centers that are struggling to maintain minimum staffing levels. Even Hursh, who’s supposed to be in a supervisory role, said he's logging 40 hours a week at a dispatch console.

Hursh attributes the turnover and vacancies to a combination of factors, including the disruption caused by COVID and the requirement that state employees get vaccinated. But he said the particular demands of being a dispatcher also make it hard to recruit and retain employees.

“I think it's just the nature of the 24-hours-a-day, seven-day-a-week job," Hursh said. “It's one thing to say, ‘I understand that’ when you take the job, it's another thing to be working it and mandatory 12-hour shifts.”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, as rush hour picked up, four communications officers sat at sprawling consoles in the dimly lit Tacoma communications center. It was an atmosphere of controlled chaos. The dispatchers were in perpetual motion: answering 911 calls, typing madly on their keyboards and relaying information to troopers via the police radio.

One of the dispatchers, Kayla White, was handling the Ellensburg area calls. With nearly five years on the job and two kids at home, White said it’s typical for her to work three mandatory 12-hour shifts a week, plus two more regular eight-hour shifts.

“We definitely need more people for sure,” White said. “It would take a lot of stress off of a lot of people.”

On the other side of the room, Rachel Gates, who’s been a communications officer for 14 years, was working a mandatory overtime shift. Speaking between calls, she acknowledged it takes a toll on her kids.

“They want mom home more, but they know it’s part of the job so they’re kind of used to it now,” Gates said.

The shortage of dispatchers is also being felt in the field. Trooper Anthony Rodriguez, a nearly four-year veteran assigned to the Tacoma area, said sometimes troopers are asked to restrict their radio traffic to only priority matters because the dispatchers are so busy.

During a recent patrol shift, Rodriguez described dispatchers as a “lifeline” and the backbone of the public safety system.

“Without them, we couldn’t do our job,” he said. “They’re behind the scenes, but they're what makes everything move forward.”

The dispatcher shortage is also hitting local and regional 911 offices. Valley Communications dispatches police, fire and EMS for five cities in south King County. At full staffing, Valley Com, as it’s known, would have 103 call receivers and dispatchers. Currently, it has 82 who are available to be scheduled for shifts.

“We’ve always had staffing issues, but not to his degree,” said Lora Ueland, Valley Com’s executive director.

Similar to the State Patrol, Valley Com is getting by with lots of mandatory overtime — an average of 547 hours a week.

Recruiting new staff has been a challenge. Prior to COVID, Ueland said they would typically have eight to 10 recruits in an academy class. Now, sometimes it’s as few as two.

Besides COVID, Ueland said the murder of George Floyd and the resulting backlash against police for their treatment of African Americans had an impact.

“Even though we are not law enforcement, we are seen as a part of law enforcement because 911 is the gateway to bringing public safety services to the scene,” Ueland said.

Another hurdle to recruitment is the inflexibility of the job. Emergency dispatching is not a work-from-home gig. Heinze, of the National Emergency Number Association, said some municipalities are now offering hiring bonuses while others are reevaluating pay and benefits.

There’s also a push to elevate emergency dispatching as a profession so that it’s no longer viewed as a lower-paid clerical job.

The current pay range for a Washington State Patrol Communications Officer 1 is $50,148 to $65,604 a year. Level 2 officers and supervisors make more.

Earlier this year, the Washington Legislature unanimously passed a bill that recognizes 911 dispatchers as first responders. The new law also created a 10-member board to oversee the establishment of a statewide public safety telecommunicators training program. The goal is to standardize 911 dispatcher training in Washington and create a certification process.

“To ensure the availability and quality of trained public safety communicators, the legislature recognizes the need to adopt and implement standardized training programs and certification and recertification requirements,” the bill said.

In recent decades, the job of 911 dispatcher has gotten more complex and stressful. Heinze recalled that when she started as a dispatcher in Michigan nearly three decades ago, all of the 911 calls came in via landline.

Now calls arrive via landline, cell phone and even text message. Call volumes are also up. And then there’s the nature of the calls — dispatchers must engage with people caught in life-and-death situations often on the worst day of their lives.

“It takes a very unique person to be able to sit in the chair and do the job and make a career out of it,” said Hursh of the Washington State Patrol.

Once a new dispatcher is hired, it can take more than a year to train that person to become self-sufficient. Even then, Hursh said he’s seen recruits decide the job isn’t for them and quit. On the flip side emergency dispatching, and helping people in need, can be immensely rewarding. The challenge, Hursh said, is finding candidates who are the right fit for the job.

“It's getting harder and harder,” Hursh said. “But .. we're going to find them.”

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."