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911 dispatchers to work overtime

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Teamwork, cooperation and stamina are words commonly used during the Olympics. For dispatchers at the Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC), overtime can be added to that list.

VECC, which dispatches for every police agency in the valley except the sheriff's office and Salt Lake City police, has seven positions to fill heading into the Olympics.

"Obviously being short that many people adds stress to the organization," said VECC Assistant Director Gary Lancaster. "It puts a strain on the employees. It does cause issues for them."

The majority of the openings are for 911 dispatchers.

To make up for the shortfall, many shifts will be reconfigured, and the dispatchers will be working a lot of overtime. Each dispatcher should expect to work an average of 16 hours a week overtime during the Olympics, Lancaster said.

All of VECC's dispatchers are trained to handle 911 calls, but not everyone is trained in police and fire dispatching. Police dispatchers are being asked to answer nonemergency calls when possible to help alleviate some of the workload on the 911 folks, Lancaster said.

Despite the shortage, Lancaster said the public won't notice a change in service.

"We're not any more nervous about the staffing issue than we are about the Olympics in general," he said.

Even if VECC had a full staff, dispatchers probably would be working overtime during the Olympics anyway, he said. The real test will depend on how many calls for help VECC gets during the Games.

"We don't have a good projection of how much the call load will increase," said Lancaster, who noted that a lot of activity will happen in downtown Salt Lake City, outside VECC's jurisdiction.

The dispatch center for Salt Lake police is working with a full staff. But dispatchers there also will be putting in a lot of overtime during the Olympics. Most dispatchers will be working 12-hour days, six days a week, said Salt Lake City Police Capt. Scott Atkinson.

Some dispatchers will be assigned to Salt Lake's Olympic venues and do nothing but handle emergency calls from those venues, Atkinson said. But dispatchers have no idea what kind of call load to expect.

"We really don't know what to anticipate," Atkinson said. "We're staffing to handle all that happens."

The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office has ordered all hands on deck during the Olympics. No vacations or time off will be allowed for dispatchers during the Games.

Dispatchers for the county are expected to work limited overtime, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Lt. Armand Glick said. Some dispatchers will do nothing but handle calls from the Speed Skating Oval in Kearns, the lone Olympic venue in the county's jurisdiction.

All dispatchers taking calls for the Oval will do so by working overtime during their regular time off, Glick said. That way, no dispatchers will be pulled from their regular watch over the county. "We will not have a need to backfill regular dispatch duties," Glick said. "We'll be at full staff, which is better than normal."

Just last week the county hired four new dispatchers, who are being trained for the Olympics.

Over the past year VECC's call load was up a little over 5 percent, Lancaster said.

The main problem with filling jobs at VECC is there haven't been enough qualified people applying. Part of that was due to Utah's strong economy for so many years.

If a job applicant has the choice of working a 9-to-5 job or a job that runs 24-7 including holidays, like all the communications centers in the valley, the 9-to-5 job is going to win, Lancaster said.

"It's hard to find people committed to work in a 24-hour organization," he said.

VECC hopes, however, that it will be hiring and training a few more people before the Olympics begin.

E-MAIL: preavy@desnews.com