The Teton County sheriff will have to wait a little longer for the intervention he’s been seeking to save the county’s 911 dispatch center from a crisis.
County commissioners broached the topic again Monday, only to say they want to wait until the regular budget session to make any decisions about raising dispatcher wages.
“I want to see the payroll go through the regular budget process,” Commissioner Mark Barron said.
The topic was first brought before the Board of County Commissioners in November when Sheriff Matt Carr told his fellow elected officials that the 911 communications center was “one dispatcher away from not being able to answer every 911 call.”
The communications center is operating at half-staff, with only eight dispatchers in a department that should have 16 full-time employees.
Supervisors are working as full-time dispatchers and all dispatchers have been on a mandatory overtime schedule for years just to cover all the calls.
“We don’t want to have to put people on hold anymore,” Dispatch Manager Riclyn Betsinger said.
In 2019 dispatchers handled nearly 83,000 calls. That year dispatchers worked a total of 2,891 overtime hours, according to Betsinger. That’s up from 2,128 overtime hours in 2016.
But staffing issues in the dispatch center are not a new problem.
In 2013, Sheriff Jim Whalen worried when the dispatch center was operating with 10 dispatchers, according to News&Guide archives. He described the situation as “bumping up against crisis mode.”
The call volume has increased since 2013, and now the center is trying to make do with only eight dispatchers, meaning there are only two dispatchers working at any given time — the minimum needed to handle emergency calls.
“It has gotten significantly busier,” Carr told the News&Guide. “We have data that shows it.”
The starting base pay for entry-level dispatchers has increased since 2013 but still doesn’t meet what entry-level detention officers and patrol deputies are making, which is Carr’s goal.
As it stands, dispatchers make 10% to 15% less than jailers and deputies.
“Their training period is even longer than detention and patrol,” Carr said.
Responsibilities have also increased, with dispatchers now being trained in emergency medical dispatching.
A task force formed in response to Carr’s November plea came up with ideas for long-term solutions to dispatch hiring and retention. But Carr thinks raising salaries is the first step to attracting qualified candidates to a high-stress job. He’s written the raises into his fiscal year 2021 budget, which he’ll present to commissioners in late April.
But he said tackling this issue before the regular budget process was the original goal.
Carr said he’s sympathetic to commissioners’ fiscal concerns but feels the need to emphasize the urgency.
“There are some things I can live without, but dispatch is not one of them,” he said.