Call goes out for Valley dispatchers
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 19, 2004

Spanish among voices sought

Josh Kelley
Valley law enforcement agencies are vigorously recruiting dispatchers to fill vacancies created by high turnover rates at emergency call centers serving a growing population.

Many dispatchers, already faced with pressure-packed, emotionally draining
jobs, compensate for the shortage by monitoring more officers in the field and working overtime.

Police say the combination of stressed dispatchers, rookies and the vacancies can mean people who make calls for low-priority crimes like burglary are often put on hold by 911 operators.

Police radio channels can become overcrowded when too few dispatchers direct too many officers. Emergency operators, in Phoenix for example, answer as many as 25 calls per hour.

In response to the shortage, agencies such as the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office are recruiting dispatchers by advertising in publications as far away as Florida.

"We kind of figured the timing was right after all the hurricanes," said Patricia Cordova, a civilian commander who oversees pre-employment services for the Sheriff's Office. "We've had to become extremely aggressive in our recruiting techniques."

But despite the best of recruiting campaigns, many newly trained dispatchers, often required to work weekends, nights and holidays, quit because of the relentless stress of the job.

The dispatchers who do stay, and last the longest, are those who thrive off the pressure that chases others away.

"A lot of people we have are adrenaline junkies," said Tami du Ruiter, communications manager for Phoenix police. "It does take a unique

For Allyna Bay, a dispatch supervisor in Gilbert, that ability to cope with any situation was stretched to the breaking point just over a year ago.

She describes it as the worst call of her career.

Bay said that as she learned that a 5-year-old boy had been run over by a forklift, tears rolled down her face as she typed.

In her mind, she saw the face of her own 5-year-old son.

"That one hit home," she said. "You had to put your emotions aside and deal with the call."

The boy, Travis Davis, died after his father, who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and child abuse, let him ride on a forklift driven by a 12-year-old. Travis fell off the forklift and was run over.

"It was an awful, awful call," Bay said. "I left there that day, and all I wanted to do was hug my kid."

But after the call was over, she had more lines to answer and no time to recover.

Because dispatchers such as Bay are required to go back to work immediately after traumatic calls, they often burn out, said Mary Millard, communications manager for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

The result is an average yearly turnover rate of 17 percent nationally, according to preliminary findings from a two-year study being conducted by the University of Denver Research Institute for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.

Tom Tolman, the study's principle investigator, said that as the volume of 911 calls increases, authorities are pushing dispatchers to the edge. If pushed too far, they will gradually leave the job, Tolman said. And if a city has a depleted number of dispatchers, serious communication problems can arise in a crisis situation, he said.

Despite the seemingly unavoidable attrition rates, Millard recently succeeded in attracting 10 eligible applicants at a job fair to fill the vacant dispatch positions within the Sheriff's Office. She hopes that soon her call center will be fully staffed, if only temporarily, with 41 authorized personnel.

But the recruits will need about a year of training, and their jobs won't be easy.

Sheriff's Office dispatchers use four computer screens, two keyboards, two mice, a foot pedal, a headset and a phone hand set - all at the same desk at the same time.

"It's supermultitasking," Millard said.

Within other law enforcement agencies, the dispatch shortage is more pronounced.

The Phoenix Police Department has 14 vacancies out of 195 authorized positions for call takers and dispatchers.

Most of them have worked there less than five years, du Ruiter said. About 30 percent have been with the department two years or less.

The job, which doesn't require a high school diploma, has a starting pay of almost $16 an hour, and yet it's still a challenge to recruit and retain dispatchers.

Last year, police brass authorized du Ruiter to hire 30 new personnel through June 2005. She's requesting 45 more for the next fiscal year, which starts in July 2005.

At the Department of Public Safety, turnover rates declined last year when only 9 percent of the agency's dispatchers and 911 operators left, said Debbie Henry, communications manager for the DPS. Over the past 10 years, the turnover rate has averaged 22 percent at the agency.

So far this year, there has been a 17 percent turnover rate, and Henry still struggles to recruit enough dispatchers, particularly in Flagstaff. The starting salary for DPS dispatchers is $32,800.

"We pretty much have the bare minimum of what we need," said Henry, who currently has 87 dispatchers and 911 operators on staff.

The result is slower responses to emergency calls and congestion on DPS radio channels, Henry said.

In contrast to the male majority in the police officer corps, far more women than men are dispatchers.

Within the Sheriff's Office, only one out of 32 full-time dispatchers is male.

About 8 percent of Phoenix's 181 police dispatchers and 911 operators are men, du Ruiter said.

But the more pressing need is for more Spanish speakers. The Phoenix Police Department spends about $50,000 a month on language lines that translate emergency operator phone conversations, 98 percent of which require Spanish, du Ruiter said.