A shortage of dispatchers could be one of the biggest challenges to uniting Mid-Columbia dispatch operations by early 2018.
Benton and Franklin counties have agreed to combine their 911 operations. Until that happens, each will operate its own system. Together, they’re short 13 dispatchers — six in Benton County and seven in Franklin.
With fire season looming, managers are worried.
“We’re critical,” Richland police Chief Chris Skinner told the Benton County Emergency Services Board last week. Skinner oversees the board, which operates the Southeast Communications Center dispatch center, or SECOMM, in Richland.
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Skinner attributed the vacancies to retirements, normal attrition and the stress associated with a demanding job and 12-hour shifts.
Franklin County said the decade-long effort to combine two 911 operations hurts their ability to keep people.
“We’re short,” said Capt. Rick Roschleau, who directs the Franklin dispatch center within the sheriff’s office. “The consolidation has been lingering for years. As you have that added stress, people move on. They take other opportunities” he said.
The consolidation has been lingering for years. As you have that added stress, people move on. They take other opportunities
Capt. Rick Roschleau, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office
SECOMM is actively recruiting new dispatchers but it is difficult. Skinner said of the 140 applications that came in during the most recent solicitation, about one-third were eligible for further testing. Five were invited to interview last week. Three candidates showed up. The job pays between $19.50 and $27.80 an hour.
Franklin County too aims to fill positions, even though the agency will dissolve when SECOMM takes over. Franklin dispatchers can apply for posts with SECOMM though it’s unknown how many will actually do so.
In the interim, SECOMM dispatchers are required to work overtime — as much as 18 hours a week. Skinner said former dispatchers are taking shifts. It is also refocusing on its core mission.
That means it won’t be able to provide one-off services, such as monitoring GPS systems for its member departments. Skinner said he’s even weighing performance bonuses to entice dispatchers to stay through the transition. With six vacancies, he said his budget can handle the expense.
In Franklin County, Roschleau said shifts are going without a full complement of dispatchers and dispatchers are working overtime.
Expediting the consolidation won’t solve the challenge, Skinner said. Any new dispatchers, whether they come from Franklin County or outside the system, have to be vetted and trained. To facilitate the transfer, Skinner plans to create a “lateral” dispatcher position linking Benton and Franklin counties.
6 dispatchers needed in Benton County
7 dispatchers needed in Franklin County
That position would give Franklin dispatchers an opportunity to declare their intent to move over to SECOMM. They would undergo Richland’s standard background and psychological checks, but SECOMM would hold spots for them in the new system, he said.
SECOMM is expected to become the Mid-Columbia’s sole 911 operations in early 2018 following a decade of attempts to combine the two. Advocates say a single operation will be more efficient and will better handle the rising number of calls from mobile phones.
About 5,000 calls are misdirected annually, resulting in delayed response times. Franklin County’s Roschleau said it happened to him when he called 911 from his driveway, near the river.
“I went to Benton County,” he said.
The dispatcher shortage goes beyond the numbers. Not all dispatchers are trained for all situations. Dispatching police calls takes a different set of skills than dispatching fire calls.
Only a “few” SECOMM dispatchers can do fires, said Skinner, who is hoping 2017 won’t bring many fires.
It’s an iffy hope.
The National Interagency Fire Center predicts few fires in the Northwest this month, but cautions that warmer, drier weather in July and August could result in more fires later in the summer, depending on lightning activity.
“Some large fires are to be expected in a normal fire season for the (Northwest), particularly east of the Cascades,” it said in its monthly outlook.
Benton County Emergency Services and its Franklin County counterparts reached an agreement to unite 911 dispatch operations this spring. As of last week, all of the participating agencies, including both counties, all cities and fire districts, had approved the deal.