No one can remember the last time Teton County’s communications center was fully staffed, and staffing levels have dipped so low that if one more dispatcher quits your 911 call could go unanswered.
“This keeps me up at night,” Sheriff Matt Carr told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners during a meeting Tuesday morning. “That scares me.”
It’s a problem that Carr is trying to solve by paying dispatchers the same as patrol deputies.
“Why has this problem plagued us for so long?” Carr said. “The answer is we have not honored the commitment of our dispatchers and the key role they play in emergency services.”
Carr said dispatchers should make as much as the county’s patrol deputies and detention officers because they are providing a critical service much like his sworn cops. Responsibilities like providing medical services over the phone have been added to dispatcher’s jobs in recent years.
Dispatchers make 10% to 15% less than jailers and deputies.
“It’s one of the hardest jobs in law enforcement,” Carr said.
But county commissioners voted against salary increases Tuesday after a lengthy discussion. Instead, commissioners decided to form a task force.
“This is a Band-Aid,” Commissioner Mark Barron said about increasing salaries. “It works for a short period of time. At some point the sworn officers will wonder why they make the same as dispatch. I wonder if there is a root problem in recruitment.”
Carr was hoping for immediate action to keep the “dedicated dispatchers” he has. But he’s worried the task force won’t act fast enough.
Dispatchers are working mandatory overtime to guarantee there are two people answering calls at all times.
“We can’t have anyone getting sick without pulling in someone else on overtime,” Carr told the News&Guide. “And no one will be able to take vacations over the holidays. Is that sustainable? No.”
Commissioners Greg Epstein and Luther Propst seemed more on board with raises for dispatchers.
“The skill sets that dispatchers are required to have now are much greater than they were 10 years ago,” Epstein said. “We need to honor this and realize that dispatchers are equals in the puzzle, and we should move forward and hopefully it helps with retention and recruitment. I don’t think it is that difficult. We are making it difficult.”
Propst suggested gender might play a part as to why dispatchers are paid less.
“Am I the only one seeing that we have an occupation that is traditionally female?” Propst asked.
He didn’t point fingers at county leaders but said society might be to blame for why dispatchers don’t make as much as their sworn counterparts.
“Do we have an issue here with fairness and equity?” he asked.
All eight Teton County dispatchers are female. All 18 patrol deputies are male. Teton County Jail’s detention staff includes three females but otherwise is male, Carr said.
“I want to make sure we aren’t suggesting there is a gender-based wage gap,” commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker interjected.
Sheriff Carr said that since the News&Guide published an article Nov. 13 about the staffing shortage, six people have come in to shadow dispatchers and a few have applied for positions. Two people have been hired and are beginning training. One of the new employees is male.
Carr said the gender argument would be moot if dispatcher salaries were the same as patrol. Still, commissioners said they wanted more information before approving increased pay.
The 911 dispatch center is considered fully staffed with 16 full-time dispatchers. Right now the center has eight.
“I am incredibly sympathetic of the difficulties of the job,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said. “When we look at adjusting salaries we need to be disciplined and rigorous.”
Carr said he supports the fact-finding mission of a task force, but he thinks one of the solutions they’ll find is simply paying dispatchers more.
Carr plans to add the increased dispatcher pay to his 2020-21 budget, he said.
But until then, or until the task force completes its findings at the beginning of March, he hopes they can get more qualified people trained and into dispatcher roles.
Starting pay for an entry level dispatcher is $46,791 with the possibility of making more than $66,000 on a step plan. 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.