911 DISPATCHERS IN NEED OF RESCUE
Jesi Kissell didn’t pause to try to make sense of the horror unfolding on the other end of the phone.
A 911 dispatcher in training for eight months, Kissell had just finished coordinating a series of calls for the Grand Junction Fire Department when she answered a call from a frantic mother.
Her husband had silently retrieved a handgun, walked into their 13-year-old son’s bedroom and shot him as he slept.
Kissell ran through a series of questions with the woman, trying to determine if she could help her son, then instructed her to seek safety in a closet. Dispatcher trainer Cindy Casteel took over the call, attempting to answer how this could have happened.
Both women heard yelling. Then gunfire. The father had gone back into the bedroom and shot his son again.
At the end of the eight-minute call, Kissell got up from her desk and walked out of the room.
She tried to gather herself, the gunshots still ringing in her ears.
That scene helps explain why only roughly 5 percent of the people who apply to be a dispatcher in the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center are hired, why 30 to 50 percent of those in training wash out.
But the extreme stress that can accompany serving as the bridge between anxious callers and emergency responders accounts for only one reason why administrators struggle each year to recruit and retain qualified 911 dispatchers. Thousands of hours of overtime caused by staff shortages and the complexity and difficulty of the work also present challenges.
Officials say all those elements have the potential to put the community at risk. Overworked dispatchers could slip up and make a mistake on the phone. A crush of calls for service can delay emergency response and permit fugitives to slip away from police.
That’s why those in charge of the dispatch center hope to gradually implement a plan that would boost the number of dispatchers by 50 percent and break down multifaceted jobs into simpler, narrowly focused tasks. The systematic change will take years to complete and could meet resistance because it will require millions of dollars to carry out. But authorities say
maintaining a business-as-usual approach isn’t a viable option.
“We cannot continue to do what we’re doing,” Police Chief Bill Gardner recently told the Grand Junction City Council.
‘LIKE A JAIL’
The dry-erase board in the dispatch center is bare, save for the next date on which employees can dress casually. But make no mistake: There are no casual days here. This is chaos personified.
Dispatchers work in front of a bank of four or five computer screens. Each contains vital information: Details on the current 911 call they’re handling, a list of calls waiting to be dispatched or resolved, information about which officers are responding to which calls for service.
The room is constantly abuzz, whether it’s dispatchers answering calls or yelling across the
room to offer assistance, or the chatter of a police scanner.
Gardner said the work environment is “like a jail,” and not just because the second floor on the east side of the Grand Junction police station served as the county’s detention facility until 1992. Dispatchers are unable to get up from their seat to take a break or go to the bathroom without raising their hand and ensuring someone is available to relieve them.
Beginning in 2007, police made a concerted effort to ramp up help for the dispatch center, securing funding to add 13 positions in three years. But the number of proficient dispatchers — those who can take 911 calls and dispatch for all law enforcement, fire and emergency medical service agencies — has held steady during that time, in essence providing little relief.
That’s because it can take 18 months for someone who applies for a job to be tested, hired, trained and deemed proficient.
“It is challenging and frustrating because it does seem you go one step forward and then two steps back,” said Paula Creasy, who has managed the dispatch center for 11 of the 17 years she has worked there.
The number of 911 calls those employees are dispatching for service jumped 20 percent from 2002 to 2007. It dropped 4 percent in 2008, even though total crimes reported in the city increased 10 percent over 2007. Gardner said the apparent contrast could mean residents are being more judicious in how they use 911, but the incidents they are reporting are more serious.
During the busiest times on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the call volume can rise to the point where officers wait 20 to 30 minutes for a response after they ask dispatchers to check a license plate or a driver’s name through a computer database with information about stolen vehicles or arrest warrants.
That can compromise officer safety, according to Deputy Police Chief Troy Smith, who said some officers don’t even attempt to check for stolen vehicles or wanted subjects during times they know the dispatch center is swamped.
With some applicants and new hires unable to meet the demands of the job and trainees who require someone monitoring and documenting their work, dispatchers logged 6,456 hours of overtime last year, costing taxpayers $225,573. That’s 44 percent more than in 2007.
Difficulty in employee recruitment, turnover and overtime plague dispatch centers across the state and nation. But what authorities claim sets the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center apart from other 911 dispatch centers is that it is in the minority of agencies that dispatch regionally and for a growing population.
Employees dispatch full-time for 19 agencies in Mesa County and part-time for 12 state and federal agencies. They learn diverse skills such as instructing a caller on how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, talking a person out of committing suicide, or knowing whom to call when there’s a problem with an irrigation canal.
Sometimes, the calls hit too close to home. Just ask supervisor Glen Klaich, a 12-year employee who fielded a call a little more than a year ago from his neighbor reporting that Klaich’s home was being burglarized at that moment.
Dispatchers must be able to take 911 calls and relay information to both law enforcement and fire departments. If they can take the initial call and send for firefighter help but struggle with summoning police, they’re let go.
Smith, who oversees the dispatch center, called the demands of the job “overwhelming.”
“We’ve never been more demanding than we are now, because the job has grown in complexity over time,” he said.
Kissell spent a few minutes composing herself following that September call, one that Creasy called the worst she has heard during her tenure. She then took back her seat at the console that dispatches fire and emergency medical service and fielded a call from someone complaining about a barking dog.
She’s now a matter of weeks away from attaining proficient status.
Kissell said there have been incidents that have made her question whether she can handle this job. But that call wasn’t one of them.
“This call helped me see what really can happen, but not necessarily that I can’t do it,” she said, adding the questions she needs to ask of callers to glean critical information for emergency responders now come to her more quickly.
Casteel calls it “owning” the call.
“The people who back away from the console and say they can’t handle it, they don’t make it,” she said. “But the people who can sit there and finish the call, they’re going to be OK.”
Gardner, Smith and other police officials visit dispatchers after major incidents to make sure they’re OK and fill them in on the rest of a story that they hear the beginning of but rarely the ending. Creasy said she does what she can to minimize burnout, including trying to avoid calling dispatchers in when they’re not scheduled to work and keeping their days off together.
Administrators, though, want to do much more to help employees.
They want to push the number of dispatchers up to 44, 15 more than they currently employ.
All new hires would be trained solely on how to take 911 calls. They could advance and earn more money by adding the ability to dispatch those calls. The top-level — and top-paid — employees would both answer and dispatch calls.
Such an approach would allow most dispatchers to focus on a single duty and eliminate the multitasking required of every dispatcher.
“We have to find a way to compartmentalize these jobs because we’re asking too much of people,” Gardner said.
It would also enable administrators to promote a partially trained call-taker should a fully trained dispatcher leave. That would alleviate the impact and cost when a dispatcher leaves after administrators invest eight to 12 months training that employee.
Smith estimated it could take a doubling of the dispatch center’s $3.6 million operational budget to implement the plan.
John Linko spent 13 years as a dispatch center supervisor before resigning last summer for family reasons. He said the center is well-run and dispatchers do the best they can with the resources they have. But he believes any plan to add employees should include supervisors.
Linko, who now works as a communications specialist at St. Mary’s Hospital, coordinating flights for the CareFlight medical helicopter, said the center didn’t hire any additional supervisors until his next-to-last year of employment.
“When supervisors are stretched too thin, accountability and credibility become affected,” he said.