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There’s a significant shortage of dispatchers at some Treasure Coast first responder agencies

NewsThere's a significant shortage of dispatchers at some Treasure Coast first responder agencies

Chiquita Reese, 32, of Fort Pierce, works at the St. Lucie County Emergency Operations Center in Fort Pierce on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. The communications training officer has worked at the center for five years, where the staff are cross-trained in different departments to fill in when needed. “You have to stay calm,” Reese said of taking stressful calls. “You have to think about the safety of them and your officers.”

It’s often a grueling job that requires communicating with people when their life is at its worst.

The shifts can exceed 12 hours, and no one’s getting rich doing it. 

The 911 emergency call takers and dispatchers for Treasure Coast law enforcement and fire rescue agencies are described as “forgotten heroes.”

Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said he couldn’t do their job.

“Being a sheriff is a lot easier than being a dispatcher,” Snyder said.

Vacancies in local dispatch jobs, which can include taking 911 calls and helping to manage and direct the response of law enforcement and fire rescue personnel, are many. 

Representatives of some local government entities report struggling to fill positions. 

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‘Critical staffing level’

Amber Jefferson, assistant supervisor of the St. Lucie County Emergency Operations Center in Fort Pierce, answers calls coming through to the center on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Fort Pierce.

Rangel Guerrero, St. Lucie County’s director of public safety, said via email they have 42 public safety communications officers. They need to have 63 to be staffed fully.

They handle 911 calls for the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce.

“Currently, we are at a critical staffing level,” Guerrero said, noting they work mandatory overtime.

“These dedicated individuals are the first to answer the call for help and are the lifeline for our law enforcement officers,” he said. “At critical staffing levels, it is a challenge to fulfill the radio, phone, and supervisor positions. Ultimately, this strain impacts our staff.”

For the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, which dispatches for its own agency along with Indian River County Fire Rescue, Fellsmere Police Department and the Indian River Shores Public Safety Department, staffing levels also are low, according to Lt. Joe Abollo, sheriff’s spokesperson.

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At full staff there should be 25 dispatchers, but they have 16 with two in training.

“It is a huge deal in the sense that the dispatchers we have work a lot of overtime and it is draining and leads to burn-out,” Abollo said via email. “With proper staffing this could be avoided.”

Dispatchers’ starting pay in Indian River County, he said, is $35,000 during training, which could take a year. Pay increases to $40,000 after training and in five years it goes up to $51,000 with annual raises in between.

“There are struggles. It takes a special person to do this job and although a lot of applicants have the ‘want’ to help people, when they actually have to do it the stress of it sometimes gets the best of them,” Abollo stated. “We deal with people mostly having their worst day, we hear their screams and it’s something that sticks with you.”

Lucie, a 3-month-old Labradoodle, sits in the St. Lucie County Emergency Operations Center on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, where she calls home. “We found the moods and atmosphere inside the workplace improved any time an animal was brought in the center,” Misti Glisson, St. Lucie's public safety communications manager said. “We had heard of other places having dogs, so we worked towards a policy that would work for everyone. Lucie was chosen as an emotional support animal because her breed is hypoallergenic and is less irritating to people with pet dander allergies. This process took over a year to get approved but it has been well worth the effort.”

Snyder said telecommunications operators at his agency dispatch for deputies and the Sewall’s Point Police Department. His agency has 31 positions, but 11 vacancies. Shifts are 12 hours and starting pay is $42,700. Overtime is mandatory, he said.

“We have enough with overtime to meet the needs, we have a minimum staffing level and we don’t fall below that,” Snyder said. “We’re meeting the needs, but we are very, very focused on getting our complement up.” 

Snyder described the telecommunications operator position as “probably the most complex job in the Sheriff’s Office,” noting the multitasking that must be done. 

 Abollo also stressed the skill of completing a number of tasks simultaneously.

“While you are on the phone with someone getting the information you need you are also searching databases to see if we have a history with them, you may be giving pre-arrival instructions for medical calls, or talking someone through performing CPR, all while typing into the call to keep the units en route up to date,” he said.

Sebastian Police Capt. Tim Wood said his agency needs dispatchers.

He said Sebastian police are supposed to have 10, which includes a supervisor and an assistant supervisor. There are currently six, with two slated to move to other positions in the department.

“(The position moves) are all on hold until we get it filled,” Wood said. “We’re not in a very good spot right now.”

Historically, Wood said, filling dispatch jobs has not been such a challenge. Pay range for a Sebastian dispatcher is about $38,720 to about $55,480, he said.

“This is definitely kind of a unique thing, and it probably started happening maybe a year, two years ago,” Wood said of challenges filling positions. “Maybe it’s associated with COVID-19.”

‘Calm voice in the dark’

Lee Bruce is a public safety dispatcher for the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, starting in 1989.

Bruce said dispatchers are “that calm voice in the dark.”

“I tell my trainees, you’re safe sitting in that chair … behind that computer and nothing’s going to happen to you. These people are calling you for help,” Bruce said. “If you freak out or get scared, these people aren’t going to get the help they need.” 

The best day on the job, she said, is being able to help the public.

“Somebody says ‘thank you’ for your job, and ‘thank you for what you do’,” Bruce said.

At times it can be challenging, such as if a person calls and says they want to kill themselves and does so when on the line.

Bruce said she received recognition this year after an incident in November 2021 in which she said she gave CPR instructions to a caller to do on a man in cardiac arrest.

“I love my job. This is like a calling,” Bruce said. “I truly love helping people.” 

David Hadawi said he oversees dispatch and records at the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. He started in dispatch more than 10 years ago, and still works overtime shifts as a dispatcher.

The job has challenges, such as one moment handling a call because someone has an issue with their power, to the next call, in which you’re rendering life service aid for an injured child.

“You’re going from kind of one extreme to the other, and you have to be able to do that, at the drop of a hat while keeping a calm, cool, collected demeanor,” Hadawi said.

He noted situations where the outcomes are positive.

“That’s kind of what you want to focus on, too,” he said.

Hadawi said the job is vital.

“People have to be able to rely on 911 to get any form of help they might need at any given time,” Hadawi said. “To be able to provide that service … makes you feel like you’ve been able to help people, and that’s a good thing.”

Short staffed? Not here

Brandon Lake, of the St. Lucie Fire District, works out of the St. Lucie County Emergency Operations Center in Fort Pierce on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.

While many agencies reported deficits in dispatch numbers, that’s not the case everywhere.

The St. Lucie County Fire District is fully staffed with 22, according to Brenda Stokes, Fire District spokesperson. Pay starts at $19.11 a hour. 

Police in Stuart and Vero Beach also have no dispatch vacancies; Stuart police have nine full time, and three part time, dispatchers, while Vero police has 10, agency representatives said. 

“Dispatching is not an easy job,” Stuart Police Chief Joe Tumminelli said. “It’s not for everyone. It’s very, very consuming.”

Stuart Police Capt. Heather Rothe said there are 480 hours of training, which progresses slowly through various aspects of the job.

“At the end of that 480 hours, then you should be able to multitask, answering the radio, answering the phones, giving out the calls,” Rothe said.  

After that, she said, a state certification program begins, and dispatchers must be re-certified every two years. 

Rothe didn’t know why some agencies have challenges filling dispatch positions, noting her agency has been staffed fully for years. She said the city is a great place to work, with excellent relationships.

“Our officers and our dispatchers have great communication,” Rothe said. “And I think that the city takes care of their employees.”

Lt. Mike Gerwan, Stuart police spokesperson, said dispatch pay starts at about $41,660, topping out at about $73,490.

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New hires?

Some agencies said they are trying hard to attract new dispatchers. 

Martin sheriff’s spokesperson Christine Christofek said her agency conducts a variety of recruiting efforts to fill positions in dispatch and other civilian areas, such as by attending job fairs and through social media. 

“They do everything they can to try to recruit,” Christofek said.

In St. Lucie County, Guerrero said community outreach is “an essential recruitment element that we are continuously doing via job fairs, community events, social media, even placing recruitment flyers at our county libraries and St. Lucie County Area Regional Transit (ART).”

In Vero Beach, most dispatchers tend to stay on a long-term basis unless a better paying job comes up or they move out of state, said Master Police Officer Darrell Rivers. He said he started in 1988 as a dispatcher before becoming an officer. 

Regarding shortages at other agencies, Rivers said he thought it was “a sign of the times.”

“Especially with the younger generation,” he said. “It’s just a different type of work ethic. And that’s what I think it really boils down to.”

Snyder said while the job can be demanding and mentally draining, there are many positives.

“It can be an exciting job, it certainly can be a rewarding job. It’s contributing to society,” Snyder said. “You may not make as much as you would in private enterprise, but there’s an almost fully funded retirement.”

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