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Where I Stand: The number of people answering 911 calls is dwindling; what happens next?

Editor’s note: Becky Grant, the Communications Dispatch Supervisor for the Sheriff’s Office, made these remarks during the Plumas County Board of Supervisors meeting today, Nov. 1. The staffing level in dispatch is reaching an unsustainable level and Plumas News is sharing her remarks because she explains the situation with an in-depth understanding of what is at stake. 

By Becky Grant

Plumas County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Supervisor

Good morning.  My name is Becky Grant and I am the Communications Dispatch Supervisor for the Sheriff’s Office.  I have 30-plus years of full-time service to Plumas County — all with the Sheriff’s Office.

Four plus years ago, I began planning for retirement and started training someone to fill my shoes when I left.  That person is no longer in dispatch.  For the last 2 years I have been looking for a way to retire from the county, which requires me to train someone else, but things like low staffing, the impact of COVID, the overwhelming fires and rising health insurance costs have made it impossible for me to walk away from something I have given so much of my heart and soul to, and something that is so broken.

What I hope to do by being here today is to give you a little different view of what is happening at the Sheriff’s Office, and specifically dispatch.  Recently you have heard from many county employees, including one of my dispatchers (Cassie Lavley), Deputy Chandler Peay and Sheriff Johns, all have been here with updates about the department staffing issues.  I want to give a different picture of what is ahead of us and the effect it will have on 911 emergency services for the citizens of Plumas County.

The Sheriff Department has 8 full-time dispatch positions and a supervisor allocated.  Right now, we have 5 full-time dispatchers (and myself).  As Cassie mentioned previously by the end February or sooner, we are looking at losing 2 more dispatchers.  That will take takes us down to 3 full-time dispatchers and myself.  It takes 5 dispatchers for 24/7 coverage, and that is with no time off, no vacations, no sick time, no CTO, etc.  That may work for a week or two, but experience makes me believe the crush of work load that must be faced by each dispatcher will have very negative effects.  I recently had a dispatcher in my office in tears, saying with the rising cost of fuel and the upcoming health insurance costs she will not be able afford to work here, that is not what she wants but it is a reality.  She’s now on the fence, what do you think she will decide when her workload, responsibilities and grueling work schedule are impacted?  We just cannot afford to lose her too.

The average time to get a dispatcher hired and trained is 6 months in a perfect world, but in reality, it more likely to be 8-10 months. This includes the HR testing process, oral interviews, agency background check and then the dispatcher training program. A dispatcher in training cannot work alone until they have completed the 4-month-plus training program.  How many of our county jobs have such an extensive training requirement before the employee can truly work a shift alone?  Outside of a sheriff’s deputy, I would submit there are very few, if any.

If we hired 2 dispatchers today, they would not be able to cover a shift alone until at least March/April 2023- again that’s only IF they could complete the hiring process.  Right now, we have no hire list to work from.  I don’t have an exact number, but I can say we have had about 15 people interview for a full-time dispatcher’s job in 2 years and today, we have 1 dispatcher still here from that time frame.  It’s not encouraging and to make things worse, she is one that will be leaving soon.

More importantly, applicants are not knocking down our doors to come to work here.  So those people we are hoping to hire “today,” well we haven’t found them yet. I believe good quality people are out there, but we are not competitive enough to get a second look.

The dispatcher’s job has become increasingly complex.  You all know they work 24/7, weekends and holidays. But did you know they log into, use and monitor at least 10 computer systems at a time, including 2 mapping programs along with local, state and federal systems?  We are the primary 911 agency for the county, and answer on average 15-20 emergency 911 calls and 60 to 80 non-emergency calls a day.  Besides the Sheriff’s staff and SAR team, the dispatchers are also responsible for dispatching the ambulances & fire departments for ¾ of the county. On certain calls they may have to coordinate with one or more outside dispatch centers to get the needed response.  They monitor and track personnel for Probation, Animal Control, Victim Witness, Boat Patrol and more.  They process arrest warrants, restraining orders and other critical paperwork.  They are responsible for mandatory reporting into state and federal databases. At our current staffing, they are doing all of these tasks, largely alone, which at times can be an overwhelming amount of work for a given shift.

Twenty plus years ago Plumas County was a solid blue-collar community.  Our demographic was largely made up of young families with children in our schools.  This has changed dramatically, and we are quickly becoming much more of a retirement community, county wide.  This means the type of 911 calls the dispatchers deal with has changed as well.  About 75 percent of our 911 calls are now medical aid, fire and rescue calls.  These calls take time to deal with many times someone’s life is literally at stake.   We have also seen a significant rise in calls for suicidal persons.  A little over a year ago, one of my dispatchers spoke to a 911 suicidal caller for 45 minutes, while sending help.  This person told the first responders that the dispatcher saved his life, literally.  He had 100 percent planned on taking his life that day.  At times the outcome is not so rosy, sometimes these victims have killed themselves while on the phone with the dispatcher. Again, how many of our people face this level of responsibility?

If something doesn’t change soon, there may be no one there to answer and handle those 911 calls.  It’s just that simple.  We cannot continue on the current path; you must intervene and do whatever this body can to stop this downward trend of losing dispatchers.  If you do not act, you might ask yourself who will be there to answer that 911 call if it is your family member that is in need?

With all that being said, I believe this problem is twofold.  First, we must retain the people we have now and secondly, we must be competitive to recruit competent candidates.  I recently looked at my newest dispatcher’s check stub and after everything they take out, her bi-weekly take home pay is $899, this after fuel, car payment and insurance, food, phone, etc allowed her to have enough money left to only rent a room to have a living space.   All this while asking him/her to work the shifts they do, with the incredible responsibility they have and to make life and death decisions they must make every single day.  It truly takes a special person to be a dispatcher!  I hope I have given you a little better insight into the dispatcher’s job, while helping you to understanding why it is so important that you do something to turn this ship around.

I invite each one of you to come by the dispatch center and spend some time with these people.  See what they do and how much responsibility they have.  Check out the 10 computer programs and systems they use to do their job every day.  Listen to some of the calls they handle from the citizens of our county.  I think you will walk away both surprised and proud!

My final thought is this, should I as an employee that loves my job, my people and county try to stick it out and work toward better times and a fully functional dispatch center?  This has been my goal for the last few years, but we’re losing ground, with no relief in sight.  So now I ask myself do I push forward or get off this sinking ship before it is too late?  Sadly, I am leaning toward the latter, which only adds to the number of people that won’t be there to answer those 911 calls for help!    Thank you!

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