Teton County’s communications center has half the dispatchers it needs to adequately answer emergency calls and that means trouble.
“We are one person away from not being able to answer 911 calls 24/7,” Sheriff Matt Carr told county commissioners Tuesday morning. “This is a crisis.”
The 911 dispatch center is considered fully staffed with 16 full-time dispatchers. Right now the center has eight.
Carr told commissioners that something has to be done or some emergency calls could go unanswered. To fill the gaps, dispatchers are working 12-hour shifts and mandatory overtime — and they have been for years.
“We need to retain the excellent staff we have now,” Carr told the News&Guide. “I can’t lose any more.”
Carr is proposing the county pay dispatchers the same salaries it pays detention officers and patrol deputies. As it stands, dispatchers make 10% to 15% less than jailers and deputies.
Starting pay for an entry level dispatcher is $46,791 with the possibility of making more than $66,000 on a step plan.
Commissioners didn’t vote on anything Tuesday.
Carr insisted it’s time to boost dispatcher pay for both retention and recruitment, but also because it’s what they deserve.
“They are the first link to the public,” Carr said. “They are walking people through CPR over the phone. They are often on the line with people in life-threatening situations. The role they play in this process is critical. Why shouldn’t they be at the same salary level?”
In comparison, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, increased dispatcher pay to match sheriff’s deputies pay in 2007, Carr said.
Only eight full-time dispatchers means there are only two assigned to each shift.
“We are tired, and we do have burnout,” Communications Supervisor Alex Harper said. “But it’s such an amazingly challenging and rewarding job that we stay in it. We love the reassurance that we get to provide the community to help them feel safe.”
When bigger emergency calls like the Saddle Butte fire come in, two dispatchers can barely keep up.
“We took in over 120 calls at an average of one call per minute,” Harper said.
The communications center provides dispatch services for the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, Jackson Police Department, Teton County Search and Rescue, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, the National Elk Refuge and after hours for Grand Teton National Park.
It’s staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Two dispatchers per shift is the minimum to keep it operating.
“We have been on mandatory overtime since the beginning of 2017,” Dispatch Manager Riclyn Betsinger said. “If one of us takes needed time off someone else has to work overtime to cover us.”
Betsigner has been pulling double duty as a manager and dispatcher.
“We don’t want to have to put people on hold anymore,” she said.
On Tuesday afternoon in the communications center, Betsinger was manning a desk with six screens in front of her. She took emergency calls while talking to the News&Guide, one about a carbon monoxide leak and another about a possible poaching incident.
“You think someone came took the head after?” she asked on her phone headset. “The deer is missing its head?”
A moment after a dispatcher is talking about a decapitated deer she could be calmly telling someone over the phone how to deliver a baby.
“We talk someone through how to perform CPR about once a month,” Betsinger said.
Because of the small staff, Teton County dispatchers are skipping family holidays, birthdays and weddings to answer calls about drug overdoses and domestic violence incidents.
They do it because they love it, but having a few more employees to help share the load is critical, they said.
“If people love a challenge this job gives you that every day,” Harper said. “It helps keep you engaged.”
Dispatchers encourage those interested to set up a shadow day where they sit in dispatch and see how the job works.
“A lot of dispatchers joke that we thrive in the chaos,” Harper said. “When you see something through from the beginning to the end it’s a rewarding feeling to know you’re a piece of the puzzle.”
Applicants must be 18 years old and have a high school diploma and a valid driver’s license. Applicants must pass a typing proficiency test, a background investigation and a written test.
Carr’s proposing starting pay be increased to $54,167, which would increase to $76,536 in the 15-step plan. The figures are higher for supervisors and managers.
Applications and instructions on applying are at TetonSheriff.org.