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Utah DPS struggling to hire, keep emergency dispatchers

VERNAL — She's been an emergency dispatcher for 30 years, but a single ringtone still gets the adrenaline pumping for Laconna Davis.

"That's 911," Davis said as a siren sounds from one of the nearby telephones in the Uintah Basin Communications Center.

"To me it's a challenge," she continued, talking about her job as manager of the Utah Department of Public Safety's consolidated dispatch center in Vernal.

"When 911 rings, you never know what's going to be on the other line, so you have to be prepared all the time and you have to rely on your training."

Davis and the few dispatchers she supervises have had plenty of opportunity to use that training. The Vernal dispatch center has been understaffed by 60 percent for months now, despite efforts to recruit and hire help to fill the open positions.

"There's been quite a few of us that have worked 12, 13 (days) straight without a day off," Davis said, acknowledging that "burnout is an issue."

Dispatchers at the Vernal center handle just about every police, fire and emergency medical call in Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties. That's nearly 50 agencies with almost 200 police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

"Right now we've got five dispatchers, including myself, who work the console and two (dispatchers) in training," Davis said. "We still need six more dispatchers."

There have been times when only one dispatcher has been on shift, handling every incoming call and sending resources where they're needed, Davis said. Right now, she's relying heavily on a platoon of former dispatchers who are able to work part-time or cover an occasional shift.

"It is overwhelming because there are so many shifts to cover," she said, adding that despite the shortage of dispatchers, calls are still being handled and dispatched without any noticeable delay.

"I think that's where a lot of the stress comes in," Davis said. "You do the best you can with what you have, but there could be times when it's very taxing or even overwhelming."

Even if Davis were to fill all the positions she has vacant, keeping those people on the job remains one of the biggest challenges for the Department of Public Safety's Communications Division, which saw a 30 percent turnover rate statewide last year.

Some of those who left didn’t make it through the rigorous on-the-job training that requires new dispatchers to learn multiple computer and phone systems, according to Utah Highway Patrol Capt. Alan Workman, who supervises the Communications Division and its six consolidated dispatch centers around the state.

Other dispatchers who resigned didn’t like the stress or said the job didn’t pay enough, Workman said, adding that pay is an issue DPS is working to address this year.

"We need to raise the pay standard and the top end wages for (dispatchers)," he said.

The starting salary for new DPS dispatchers is about $28,000 a year, plus benefits. On average, though DPS dispatchers make about 12 percent less than their counterparts at Utah dispatch centers that are not run by the state, Workman said. That wage gap jumps to 37 percent, on average, for the center managers.

Securing funds to recruit and retain dispatchers is the No. 1 priority for UHP during the current legislative session, Workman said, and the No. 2 priority for DPS.

"The (state) crime lab is number one," the captain said. "They have some very unique needs that need to be focused on."

Gov. Gary Herbert's budget includes money to help improve salaries for DPS dispatchers, but it still has to be approved by lawmakers. The agency has also freed up some cash through internal cost-cutting measures to fund hiring and retention bonuses for dispatchers, Workman said.

"We're at about 22 officers, on average, per dispatcher," Workman said. "That's a lot for one dispatcher in that arena to handle."

But more money alone won't solve the problem. Qualified applicants have also been in short supply. Numbers compiled by the agency show that of the 149 people who applied for the vacant dispatch jobs in Vernal since July, only two made it through a hiring process that requires a background investigation, drug testing and a polygraph exam.

"It's a job that we can't lower standards and we don't want to lower standards," Workman said.

Still, the Communications Division is reexamining its hiring processes to try to attract the right people to answer the call and provide some much needed relief for dispatchers like Davis, who still loves to serve others.

"You're really helping someone and you do make a difference," she said.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik