911 has its own emergency: Not enough call takers and dispatchers

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911 dispatchers in demand

911 dispatchers in demand (KDVR)

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — “Jeffcom 911. What is the address of your emergency?” asked a 911 call taker.

“I’m on I-70 east. A truck just blew up,” responded the caller.

A massive inferno erupted on I-70 involving 24 passenger vehicles and four semi trucks in 2019.  Calls flooded into Jeffcom 911 as the accident unfolded. 

“There were well over 20 agencies that responded to that and we were able to contain all of that information,” said Michael Brewer,  Deputy Director of Jefferson County Communications Center Authority. 

Jeffcom 911 is the emergency dispatch center taking calls from Jefferson county residents and providing dispatch for 23 law and fire agencies. 

The dispatch center currently has 18 openings. It has not been fully staffed with call takers who also dispatch emergency response since opening three years ago. 

“The unpredictability of it is the most difficult thing,” said Bess Joyce, Jeffcom 911’s training manager.

Jeffcom 911 will hold four training academies in 2021 in hopes of filling openings. Ten trainees have currently mastered CPR and in the coming weeks will learn how to take incoming calls, prioritize calls based on emergencies and dispatch the proper emergency response. 

According to Jeffcom 911, the center receives 300,000 emergency calls a year plus another 600,000 non-emergency administrative calls a year. Just in April, 19,072 calls were answered with 17,350 police calls and 4,714 fire calls dispatched according to their web site. 

“Us being a high-volume center, as many calls that we take a year, there’s no time to process for an hour and then pick up a call. sometimes it’s hang up, take a deep breath and go on to the next,” said Joyce. 

Other 911 communication centers in Colorado are also facing a shortage of workers. 

In Denver, where call takers answer calls and dispatchers communicate with police there are currently 17 call taker and six dispatch positions open. Boulder Sheriff’s Office told the Problem Solvers they have five openings. Colorado Springs, Englewood and Aurora all posting dispatch openings on their web pages. 

Colorado isn’t the only state trying to fill multiple emergency dispatch positions. The National Emergency Number Association has reported that dispatcher shortages have been a problem plaguing agencies across the nation. While no agency tracks the current openings at centers nationwide, NENA told the problem solvers finding and retaining employees is an ongoing issue. 

“The pay for 911 professionals is often comparable to jobs that are less stressful and have more family-friendly hours which makes it difficult to retain employees’ long term,” said April Heinze with NENA. “I have seen studies that show a 15-20% turnover rate within 911 centers.” 

According to the US Department of Labor, 911 call takers and dispatchers in Colorado’s largest cities make more than $25 an hour. 

Labor department statistics from May 2018 show Colorado Springs paid $21.38 an hour with Fort Collins on the high end with $26.49 an hour to emergency call dispatchers. 

Wage is not the only factor that makes the jobs hard to fill.  

Heinze said, “911 professionals can workdays, afternoons, or nights, along with weekends and holidays, which is difficult on one’s home life.”

Long and stressful days by these emergency responders can also lead to retention problems according to Jeffcom 911. 

“There’s a full spectrum of reasons why people leave, and we are trying to bridge as many of those gaps as possible to try to retain people. It’s a top priority for this organization,” said Brewer.

NENA reported 1,880 professionals work dispatch jobs across Colorado. 

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