Summit County’s 911 dispatchers face staffing challenges, long hours and little hope for advancement. Then there are the calls.
The hardest calls are the ones with kids. Or maybe the searches that stretch from hours into days. Or ones with a more personal connection, like when the unresponsive male is the same age as your neighbor’s son, or it’s happening on the street you grew up on.
When Summit County dispatchers pick up a 911 call, they don’t know what’s going to be on the other end of the line. It could be the lady who calls once a week asking for the number for the library. Or a man overcome with emotion at seeing a pregnant squirrel that’s just been hit by a car — send units immediately.
The routine calls are often a matter of life and death, too. Dispatchers handle the daily activity for every first responder in Summit County, from the Sheriff’s Office to the Park City Fire District to the Utah Highway Patrol to Animal Control. They cover more than a dozen agencies.
There are 14 dispatchers, including supervisors, leads and new hires. Most are women. Operating at full strength, the crew would have 20 members. Ideally, there’d be four or five working a shift, but they’ve had to get by with as few as two or three.
Supervisor Tanya Odenbach, who’s been a dispatcher for 15 years, said she’s seen the department fully staffed a few times, but it’s hard to hire and retain employees. The pay is comparable to other entry-level jobs, or even a bit better — a new dispatcher starts at nearly $18 an hour with good benefits. But the job comes with demands that most others don’t.
“Not a lot of people grow up wanting to become a dispatcher,” Odenbach said. “Not a lot of people doing it for the pay, or for the schedule.”
They cover emergency services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no breaks for kids’ birthdays, Christmas or Thanksgiving. Most work 60-hour weeks, and though overtime isn’t mandatory, there are times it has been. The limit is 120 hours in a two-week pay period, and some of the dispatchers bump up against that.
A typical schedule is three 12-hour shifts and one four-hour shift, but supervisor Suzy Butterfield said she’ll usually turn that four into a 12 and sometimes pick up an extra 12-hour shift, as well. Odenbach said the overtime average is 16 hours a week. The division’s director told the County Council at an August meeting that overtime has run 400 percent over budget.
Then there’s the stress that comes with answering those calls. Butterfield said many dispatchers suffer from PTSD, but unlike, say, police officers, dispatchers cannot reach a medical retirement even if their symptoms warrant it.
That’s one of the things Odenbach said might be changed if a bill passes the U.S. Senate that would declare dispatchers as official first responders. It might help with the occupation’s pay and benefits, too.
In Summit County, dispatchers’ insurance covers mental health, and there are mechanisms in place to bring in professionals to help them if there’s been a particularly rough call or a tough few days.
“We literally see the worst of everything,” Butterfield said. “This isn’t a desk job, it’s chaos.”
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the dispatchers, has proposed restructuring the department to more closely resemble the way other first responder departments work. One of the biggest changes would be to create a career ladder.
The opportunity for that kind of career advancement doesn’t currently exist. For instance, once Odenbach was promoted to supervisor about 10 years ago, there was nowhere else for her to go, no further promotion she could attain unless someone who’d been with the department for decades retired.
She said she thought about becoming a sheriff’s deputy, something a few dispatchers have gone on to do. But ultimately she decided she liked what she was doing and stuck with it.
Sheriff Justin Martinez said the office is fully staffed to cover courts, patrol duty and corrections, but dispatch has been a persistent challenge.
“(The new structure is) not going to change how tough the job is, but it might make it more palatable to advance to supervisor role,” Martinez said. “Currently (they) have a really tough job with no future. We’re trying to make them family — their job is just as valuable.”
If the County Council approves the restructuring, Odenbach would become the new director, replacing Lt. Nick Wilkinson, who has been moved to overseeing the Courts Division. The County Council heard a proposal from Wilkinson and Martinez Aug. 21, but did not vote on the plan, instead suggesting it go through the normal budgeting process.
The change would initially yield a small savings by holding a position open, but would create new positions and the possibility for more upward mobility and would likely result in pay raises, increasing the division’s budget.
Both the sheriff and the division’s commander have worked a dispatch console, Odenbach said, seeing firsthand the rigors of the job.
The sheriff told the County Council a story that illustrated the challenge in retaining staff.
“One of our (dispatchers), he took a phone call. The individual on the other line of the phone said, ‘Here’s my location, tell my family I love them,’ and all he heard is a pop. All he heard is a pop,” Martinez said. That dispatcher is still with the department, the sheriff said, but if that had happened to a newer dispatcher, they might not have been able to cope as well.
The bad calls stick with dispatchers, they said. Odenbach said she dreams about the job sometimes, replaying calls that had bad outcomes, wondering if she could’ve done anything differently.
Butterfield said they deal with the worst possible scenarios at work, and she joked that when her kids are getting a ride home from someone, she needs to know the make, model and color of the car and the driver’s full name and social security number.
“I’m the most jaded mother in the world,” she said with a laugh.
Butterfield recalls the day the Rockport Fire started in 2013. It eventually burned nearly 2,000 acres and claimed eight homes and scores of outbuildings, sheds and vehicles.
She was one of two dispatchers on duty, and it seemed like every person driving on Interstate 80 called in to report it.
“Within 20 minutes we had to evacuate,” Butterfield said, recalling 911 ringing nonstop for two hours. That’s on top of dispatching emergency personnel and coordinating hundreds of people in the fire suppression effort.
She said they got through it by splitting duties between the fire and all the other calls, triaging calls in real time and putting their heads down and working through it.
Afterward, she was tired but proud of the work they’d done.
The sadness hit days later when a woman who was vacationing in Florida called in. She was crying, Butterfield said, watching her house burn down on live TV, and there was nothing they could do.
The department does what it can to offer creature comforts for the dispatchers, and their work stations reflect it. They sit or stand behind a bank of seven monitors, with a desk that moves up and down, has extra lighting and has heating and cooling built in. Everyone has their favorite keyboard and chair, Odenbach said. There’s exercise equipment around the office like dumbbells and treadmills, and sometimes a dispatcher will set up a treadmill so they can walk while they’re working. There’s a relaxation room where dispatchers can go after a hard call. It can be plunged into darkness or lit with lamps and has a massage chair donated by the Park City Fire District emblazoned with a message thanking the dispatchers for all they do.
The job requires several certifications and an intensive, six-month training course, but Odenbach says it takes longer than that to become confident in the job, usually about a year. That’s on top of the six- to eight-month waiting period while a candidate is vetted with polygraph tests, background checks and drug tests.
Dispatchers also have successful calls, like locating a person who is missing or leading a caller through first aid that helps someone who had been choking.
The industry standard is to answer 911 calls within 10 seconds, Odenbach said, but the Summit County crew averages three seconds.
“They’re a competitive bunch,” she said.
They take apparent pride in the work of the departments they support. Odenbach said the Search and Rescue division is one of the most accurate in the state. They’d only lost three people in the 35 years Lt. Alan Siddoway had been in charge, she said, and were planning a search for someone who’d been missing for three years.
Odenbach and the other dispatchers could still recall with little hesitation the names and circumstances of the three missing people, years after the searches started.
Both Odenbach and Butterfield said they enjoy the job and the fact that it lets them help people. It takes a certain kind of person to be a dispatcher, they said. Butterfield talks about some who’ve gotten so anxious coming into work it literally makes them sick.
But every day is different, and both said they enjoy the adrenaline rush.
“It’s a different world,” Odenbach said.
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