Dispatchers feeling strain of long days
Stressful job gets tough as winter wears on
January 10, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Even as vacationing skiers frolic on the slopes of Mount Werner this week, a dedicated group of Routt County emergency dispatchers are weathering unusually trying times, even for one of the biggest pressure cooker jobs in the Yampa Valley.
The police scanner was busy Thursday and Friday with dispatchers fielding a report of a small structure fire at Storm Meadows Condominiums. They coordinated with police and wildlife officials keeping track of a moose on the highway and monitored the status of paramedics treating injured skiers being taken to the hospital.
The dispatchers, already accustomed to working 10-hour shifts, are spending even longer stretches in front of their glowing computer screens this month because the department is chronically understaffed.
"We've been working 12-hour shifts, and it's really starting to bum them out," interim Communications Director Sharon Clever told the Routt County Board of Commissioners last week. During the holidays, she asked one dispatcher to work while sick and called another in from vacation.
The office is soldiering on into the new year short four of its usual complement of 15 dispatchers. Two positions became open last year and were exempted from the county hiring freeze. The openings have yet to be filled after two trainees dropped out in December, five months into a six-month training process. Two more dispatchers are out on family medical leave.
Clever and her colleagues also were carrying on without two managers who were in place through 2008 and into 2009. The communications operation is short the assistant director, whose position was eliminated in the 2009 budget crunch. Subsequently, department manager J.P. Harris resigned late last fall. He took a job with the Denver Police Department to be closer to his fiancée.
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Stress is part of the job
In the best of times, the dispatchers at Routt County Communications must maintain an even disposition while juggling emergency calls — sometimes from emotionally distraught victims and their family members.
At least two dispatchers are on duty at all times, and three if possible. In front of each dispatcher is an array of four large computer monitors that cover the phone system, the dispatching system, mapping software and a database from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and local agencies. In all, 49 agencies respond to calls that come through the communications center.
Each time a 911 call comes into the center, the computers blare a sound similar to a police siren, and both dispatchers on duty listen in on the call. As one dispatcher speaks to the caller, the other simultaneously dispatches police, fire and medical responders, relaying information as it comes from the caller.
On Thursday, as a call came in reporting a two-car crash with minor injuries, the time between the siren sounding and the ambulance dispatch was less than 30 seconds.
On other occasions, callers fail to recognize the distinction between 911 and 411 (telephone directory assistance). The department logged 2,905 improper uses of 911 last year. Dispatchers ask that people who aren't reporting a bona fide emergency dial 879-1090 instead.
"You just take each day as it comes," Clever said about a long shift filled with multitasking. "You're working 12s, so when you go home, you really, really enjoy your days off."
But there's more to the strain of the job than long hours. Like first responders, dispatchers are exposed to the emotional toll of coping with human tragedy.
"The (calls) involving children tug at dispatchers the most," Clever said.
Veteran dispatcher Serena Whited said a well-developed sense of humor is a vital defense mechanism.
"You'd better have a good one coming in here, especially when you have a stressful day," Whited said, "so you can laugh it off."
Sometimes the police calls supply their own humor, such as the domestic call last week of a couple arguing about which of them would get to use the "small bathroom" in their home.
Dispatching not for all
Losing the two trainees late in the process was a blow to the department, but Clever and her colleagues understand that it's crucial to find out whether new hires really are suited for the job.
They go through role-playing and drills before sitting in on live shifts.
One of the two trainees left the department after sitting in on harrowing emergency calls surrounding a fatal home fire in Hayden last month. The other realized that his hearing wasn't good enough to cope day after day with the stream of information pouring into his earphones.
Two replacement trainees already have been tabbed from among the 46 applicants to start the process all over again, Clever said last week. But they won't be ready to hold down shifts of their own for four to six months. If they are successful, starting pay will be about $43,650 (comparable to a starting jailer) with benefits bringing total compensation up to $48,000.
One of the trainees, Nikki Swaim, just started work Jan. 3. She was working to begin memorizing a thick stack of call numbers representing all of the officers and other emergency officials who use the radio system. Another notebook was crammed with abbreviations she must learn.
"You definitely need those four to six months," Swaim said. "I'm still like a deer in the headlights."
Clever's role at Routt County Communications now requires her to supervise a shift of dispatchers, oversee the department, pull her own shift at the monitors and fill in for other dispatchers.
However, during a recent appearance before the commissioners, she was relaxed and cheerful.
"Sharon has a special personality that has allowed her to do this for a lot of years," County Manager Tom Sullivan said.
He's begun sifting through applications for a new full-time communications director.
Of 31 applications for the director position, which pays $69,400 to $74,300, Sullivan rejected 22 because they had no relevant experience. He retained nine résumés from applicants who have experience in the field. He will review them in depth this week to determine whether they meet minimum requirements for the job.
Routt County is not alone in its struggles to retain veteran personnel for the demanding jobs in the communications department, Sullivan said.
"Constant hiring and training is common nationwide," he said.
Similarly, the employees in Routt County Communications are not alone in coping with the stress of the job. The people closest to them are affected as well.
"Family is a huge part of the center because it's a huge impact on these people's families too," Clever said. "Being in this department is a commitment both to the employees and their families."