A 12-person task force has come up with six ideas they think could guarantee functional 911 services in Teton County well into the future.
Town councilors and county commissioners heard the pitch at Monday’s joint information meeting, about four months after Sheriff Matt Carr told commissioners his dispatch staffing levels had dipped so low that 911 calls could start going unanswered.
Carr, who served on the task force, said he likes the long-term solution ideas — a new facility, a consolidated agency under a joint powers board, better recruiting — but he said raising dispatcher salaries to match those of patrol deputies (a national trend) would help the county avoid a crisis.
“I am interested in the immediate because I want to make sure every time you dial 911 you get an answer,” Carr told elected officials at their joint meeting Monday afternoon.
Carr has written dispatcher raises into his fiscal year 2021 budget, which he hopes elected officials will approve when the process begins in late April, but he was hoping to get raises approved and implemented months ago.
Since his original pitch for dispatcher raises in November 2019, Teton County Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker and Commissioner Luther Propst have visited dispatch to gain a better understanding of the job.
“I spent an hour and a half in the dispatch center,” Propst told the News&Guide. “It was the most educational hour and a half I’ve experienced since I was elected to the commission. The public just doesn’t realize how critical their function is.”
The eight dispatchers who work in Teton County’s communications center have been working mandatory overtime for years because the center should have 16 fulltime dispatchers.
“Our dispatchers cannot take time off,” Carr told electeds on Monday, “and they cannot be sick without us bringing in someone else on overtime to cover them.”
Since the problem was publicized in fall 2019 the sheriff’s office has hired two more people who are a few months into their five-month training.
The goal is to have them dispatching full-time by summer, Jackson Hole’s busiest time of year.
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 and Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Dispatchers are the first link to anyone in Teton County’s 4,200-square-mile range who calls in an emergency.
“They are a significant asset to emergency services,” Carr said. “My drive behind this is not only being able to attract new dispatchers but honoring them as part of this system.”
It’s staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Two dispatchers per shift is the minimum to keep it operating.
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.
It’s a shift being made in law enforcement agencies around the country.
In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, dispatchers are paid the same as deputies. It’s one of many things Routt County government has put in place to recruit and retain dispatch staff, Emergency Communication Manager Jason Nettles said.
“It is vitally important,” Nettles told the News&Guide in an interview Monday. “It is a great thing for dispatcher pay to equal law enforcement.”
His center is almost fully staffed. Nettles said they work on an 11-step pay plan so dispatchers will know what their future earnings will be.
He said equal pay to deputies has helped morale and retention among his dispatch staff but he admits it’s not the only solution.
“We focus on employee engagement and continuing education,” Nettles said.
Routt County pays for its dispatchers to attend annual state and national conferences to help them evolve in their profession, he said.
They also built a new 20,000-square-foot law enforcement center last year, which houses their sheriff’s office, police department and dispatch.
“Our dispatch floor by itself is 1,000 square feet,” Nettles said. Teton County’s dispatch center is 456 square feet, in the back of the Teton County Jail.
Nettles said he has also changed the schedules that his dispatchers work, letting them choose how many hours they work each shift.
“We’ve revised that twice,” he said.
His efforts at revamping the dispatch center came from a research project he did comparing his county’s set-up to other 911 centers around the country. It’s helped with retention, pay and public perception, he said.
On Monday the Jackson Town Council moved to consider Carr’s fiscal year 2021 budget recommendation next month during the budget process. The Town of Jackson pays for dispatch services and Mayor Pete Muldoon said while he supports raising dispatcher salaries he worries about sticker shock.
“We don’t have oversight over dispatch,” he said. “We kind of just get handed the bill. It’s difficult for us to make longterm financial plans not knowing what the bill is going to be.”