- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) - Pitkin County is working to address a shortage of 911 emergency dispatchers after four employees quit recently, leaving existing staff to work 12-hour shifts.

Bruce Romero, emergency dispatch director for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, said that there is a specific skill set needed for the job, and that it can be difficult to find enough people who live in the area who are qualified. Few applicants come from outside of the Roaring Fork Valley.

“The skill set necessary for our job touches a segment of the population that’s very small,” he said. “The applicant pool is pretty small, and of those with the skills, they still have to want to work here.”

Romero said the ideal applicant has the ability to multi-task in an often high-stress environment, handling access duties in the jail and answering emergency calls.

“They have to take calls from barking dogs to CPR in progress,” he said. “And at the same time, be making sure we have the right deputies in the right places on the roads.”

In addition to the usual difficulties employers have retaining staff, given the high cost of living, there is a burn-out factor for many in tackling such an important and stressful job.

County Manager Jon Peacock noted that the county has raised current dispatchers’ pay by $3 an hour as they work extended hours.

Romero said the national average career in dispatch is just two years before the person moves on.

There are currently seven dispatchers on staff, with two more in training, and they usually work four 10-hour shifts a week. But they are working 12 hours a day currently because of the shortage.

The four dispatchers who recently left departed in March and April, Romero said. He noted that another position was already unfilled, leaving five openings, which have attracted less than 30 applications in the past month.

The training process alone, which takes six months here and in some places 10 months, often results in applicants bowing out, Romero said.

There’s a mental and emotional fortitude needed to perform a job of this nature, where matters can be life and death, and it’s critical that the caller’s safety be the top priority.

Romero said there are support systems in place to help dispatchers succeed at the job, but noted that it is only for “the right kind of person.”

“What if you are trying to save someone and they still die?” he said. “Or if you have to tell a mother who comes home to see her house in flames (where the kids could still be inside) to stay out? Our first rule is do no harm.”

Several county employees have remained in dispatch for many years and do a fantastic job, Romero said.

“One of our dispatchers has been here for over 30 years,” he said. “We have a supervisor who’s been on the job for 20 years, and another dispatcher (who has been here) for 18 years.”


Information from: Aspen Daily News, https://www.aspendailynews.com

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