Dispatch Center still faces staffing shortage

Dec 19, 2016

Dispatchers have at least eight screens in front of them at all times.
Credit Barbara Platts

The Pitkin County Emergency Dispatch Center hired a new communications director this month, but they are still operating with only half of a staff.

Aspen Public Radio’s Barbara Platts spent some time with them to get a sense of the job and why the center is dealing with a continuing staffing shortage.

I’m walking around the Pitkin County Dispatch Center. It’s evening and it’s relatively quiet, but that can change in a quick second.

I’m walking around the Pitkin County Dispatch Center. It’s evening and it’s relatively quiet, but that can change in a quick second.

“...Ok, when did this happen? Is there any serious bleeding? OK, where’s she bleeding from? Where’s she bleeding from, sir?” Emergency dispatcher Ginny Bultman states to a 911 caller.

Dispatchers like Bultman, who are also known as the “first, first” responders, are often on the phone with a person during one of the worst days of their lives. They first get the details of the situation. If someone is hurt, they try to gauge what kind of injury it is and how serious it is.

“Is she completely alert?” Bultman said into the phone. “Ok, are there any other parts of the body injured besides her leg?”

Once they have a sense of the situation, dispatchers send the proper response team to the scene.

“My partner is getting an ambulance on the way. Stay on the line. I’ll tell you exactly what to do next. I want to make sure I know exactly where you are,” Bultman continued.

And, as the caller waits for aid, dispatchers stay on the phone.

“Ok, don’t move her unless she’s in any danger, and don’t splint any injuries,” Bultman adviced. “I’m going to tell you how to stop the bleeding. Listen carefully to make sure we do it right.”

Bultman has been a key player during the center’s staff shortage, working in both dispatcher and supervisor roles. Bultman has been at the center for 22 years. She is unique in that way. The typical tenure of a 911 dispatcher, nationwide, averages three to five years. The department in Pitkin County has seen a turnover rate of around 60 percent in the past five years, which puts extra stress on the remaining dispatchers.

“So we have to … have someone here, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year,” she said. “What that means to us is that, if we only have half the number of people to fill those spots, that means those people have to work over time.”

After hiring someone a couple weeks ago, the dispatch center still needs six more employees to be fully staffed. They are authorized to hire 14 total, however they haven’t had that amount since 2011.

Brett Loeb is Pitkin County Dispatch Center's new communications director
Credit Barbara Platts

Along with the staffing shortage, the center has also been without a director for a year. That changed this month with the hiring of Brett Loeb. He started his career in this field in 2008 in Grand Junction.

Loeb said the dispatch center’s biggest problem is hiring and retaining staff, which is occurring on a national level. One reason is that the job requires a unique skill set.

“Dispatch has a real reputation and, deservedly so, for kind of eating our young and making it real hard for young people to come in and learn the industry, because there’s really no other career that prepares you for this career,” Loeb said.

It’s common that new hires will not make it past the six to eight months of training. All of the responsibilities just feel too overwhelming.

“You sit in here and you see eight monitors in front of you and you hear the phone ringing and the radio going all the time, and you’re like ‘There is no way I can do this,’” he said.

Loeb wants to make training less intimidating by slowing the process down and focusing on one task at a time. He employed a similar strategy in Grand Junction when they were suffering from a staffing shortage.

“So we took a real hard look at the way we train, kind of broke it down into really small elements and just focused on really giving them little bits of information at a time to learn and then kind of building on that foundation,” Loeb said.

Another reason new hires have trouble working in a dispatching role is there isn’t much closure. Dispatchers have to deal with people in life or death situations, but they aren’t on the scene so they rarely know what the outcome is. That unknown can weigh heavily on them.

Pitkin County Sheriff's Department’s director of operations Alex Burchetta acted as the interim communications director for almost a year before Loeb was hired. Burchetta said one of the main things he learned about dispatchers during his time there was, “They take things home with them,” he said. “They get emotionally connected to things that happen on their shift and I learned that it’s important to be aware of what that emotional impact is on the staff.”

Despite the obstacles that can make this a hard job, professionals in the industry, like Loeb and Bultman, find it extremely rewarding. Bultman said she can’t imagine doing anything else.  

“If you want to be up on what’s going on right now in the world. If you want to be stimulated and challenged. If you want to help people, that really is what we are doing,” she explained. “Then this is the job for you.”

The job posting on the Pitkin County website states that the pay is between just over $19 and $23 an hour, for a starting wage. And Loeb said the schedule is flexible, so dispatchers still have the opportunity to enjoy mountain town activities.