Summit County 911 Center faces staffing shortages
An employee of 9 years says it's the worst shortage she's seen here
When fully staffed, the Summit County 911 Center in Frisco would have 26 employees with four dispatchers manning the phones during the day, director Jerry Del Valle said. At the moment, the center has half the numbers it needs, and usually only two dispatchers are available at any one time during the day, he said.
Dispatchers are responsible for handling 911 calls, and the center as a whole manages communication technology for first responders. They are the integral and unseen back-end of all emergency responses in Summit County, Del Valle said.
An understaffed dispatch center poses several problems. Del Valle cited an instance where a dispatcher, busy with one call, received a second call about a choking baby. The dispatcher couldn’t pass the call on, since no other dispatchers were working or available, leading to a slightly delayed response. The fewer dispatchers the center has, the more often those situations can occur, Del Valle said.
Normally, the center should have 14 trained dispatchers and three supervisors. It currently has seven dispatchers and only two supervisors. Del Valle has worked at the center since 2012 and has been a Summit County resident since the early 2000s. In that time, he said the dispatch center has been fully staffed on few occasions.
Del Valle said two key factors have strained the county’s dispatch center: housing and stress.
The latter affects dispatchers across the state and country and is not unique to Summit County, Del Valle said. Statewide, dispatching centers have lacked employees for years, he said.
Dispatchers handle an input-heavy workload, taking calls and watching seven monitors at a time. Some calls handle morbid subjects like suicide, and dispatchers don’t always hear how situations resolve. They will have already moved on to another call by the time first responders have stabilized a scene, Del Valle said. That means they may not hear if someone is okay.
Adding to that stress is a heavy workload. Ideally, Del Valle said he’d like four dispatchers manning one of the dispatch center’s five workstations during the busy hours of the day. Currently, he said the station usually only has two staffed. During major incidents, they’ll call in more people to work on their days off or on overtime.
“A lot of days from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. you can’t leave [your station],” dispatcher Ann Marmon said. Dispatchers work a four-day, 10-hour workweek. The 24-hour work day is broken into five shifts. Marmon said only four of those five shifts are staffed at the moment, meaning for eight of her 10 hours, she’s unable to leave her station until the next upcoming shift arrives.
She said the stress of her work environment has now exceeded the stress of the calls themselves. That wasn’t the case a few years ago, she said. In her nine years of dispatching for Summit County, she’s never seen staffing levels this low.
Despite the stressful work environment, Marmon said she’s been in the industry for 14 years. She dispatched for Eagle County for five years before working for Summit County for almost a decade.
“I just really like helping people,” she said.
Housing, on the other hand, is an issue more pertinent to Summit County, and it’s been a problem for a long time, Del Valle said.
Del Valle said about half of his employees live inside the county. Marmon lives in Dillon Valley, putting her in the local half of the dispatch center’s employees, although finding a home in the county took about a decade and a half, Marmon said. She moved to Summit County 16 years ago and worked odd jobs before finding a career in dispatch services. She said her family moved to Kremmling in 2016 when they couldn’t find a single-family home. In 2021 they moved to Dillon Valley.
In 2020, Del Valle said he sought a new supervisor. After finding a candidate, the next topic to address was housing. The candidate told Del Valle they had found a place in Georgetown but before that work week had ended the candidate called Del Valle to say they had lost their lease.
Employees have the option of receiving temporary workforce housing for six months from the county. That gives them time to land a more permanent place, he said.
When training, dispatchers focus on one of three agencies: fire, law enforcement or EMS. While training, dispatchers can take calls similar to how one drives while on a learner’s permit: there’s always a trained dispatcher dedicated to them to help handle new or difficult calls. On average, Del Valle said it can take anywhere from six months to one year of training before a dispatcher is ready.
Summit County has used sign-on bonuses and retention bonuses worth up to $15,000 after five years to attract employees. The center has sought out-of-state talent, too, he said. And at the state level, he said recruitment booths have been set up at gaming conventions to attract multitaskers.
Still, low staffing persists.
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