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911 staffing shortage a danger to public safety

| January 15, 2023 12:00 AM

The call center that manages Flathead County’s initial response to public emergencies is facing an emergency of its own.

An ongoing employee shortage that has dragged on for years at the 911 Dispatch Center has led to widespread worker burnout, which in turn is feeding the department’s inability to adequately staff the 24-hour call center.

Today’s front page story by Daily Inter Lake reporter Jeremy Weber details the challenges and working conditions local dispatchers are facing within an already stress-filled work environment. Eighty-hour work weeks or stretches of 20 or more days without a day off aren’t unheard of — with no meaningful relief in sight.

Dispatchers who spoke with the Inter Lake admit that the demands to keep up are taking a toll on their ability to meet industry standards.

“The work is getting done, but it is getting done by people who are exhausted,” one dispatcher conceded. “It’s only a matter of time until that leads to mistakes.”

And that’s the red flag everyone in the county should be concerned about. The people taking your 911 calls are burning the candle at both ends, yet they’re still expected to maintain critical decision-making skills to get the resources to the scene as efficiently as possible.

“Dispatchers are our lifeline,” Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said. “Any time that is affected, it definitely is a concern for us.”

Dispatch Center director Elizabeth Brooks assured that the department is doing all it can to maintain staffing, but even she admits it’s an uphill battle given the hiring climate that’s also affecting the Sheriff’s Office and detention center.

“The 911 industry has always had challenges finding the right people and people that can do the job,” Brooks said. “It’s not for everyone and it takes a special person to be able to do it.”

Still, the dispatchers who spoke to the Inter Lake suggest more should, and can, be done to right the ship.

“They have made a lot of promises, but they never seem to materialize,” one said.

Pay is one area that could be improved — Flathead County’s starting wage for dispatchers lags behind Gallatin and Missoula counties — but county commissioners need to look deeper. What more can be done to overcome recruitment blockades and improve retention rates?

We’re at least encouraged by Commissioner Brad Abell’s comments that he recognizes the stress county dispatchers are under and the seriousness of the issue.

“We have to worry about mistakes that can affect people’s safety,” he rightly noted.

“It is something we need to get solved.”

Fixing the 911 Center staffing crisis has to be a priority. Letting the burnout continue is a recipe for tragedy.

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