ALBANY — While there is a nationwide shortage of 911 emergency dispatchers, that isn’t the case in Albany county and the town of Bethlehem. Yet, there are still concerns about the high turnover rate, hectic workload, low pay and frequent exposure to trauma.
States that have recently made the news due to their 911 dispatcher shortage include Ohio, Texas, Florida, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
A 911 emergency dispatcher is someone who first answers calls from people in need, gathers key information, and alerts the relevant first responders to the scene. Given the nature of the calls, the job can get chaotic, stressful, frenzied and even traumatic. The dispatcher would need to think quickly and try to be there for the caller in the meantime who may feel lonely, experiencing shock or is literally dying.
Such calls can be life-or-death situations, including where a caller may need police or ambulances to come, or need help with delivering CPR, or simply need a voice on the line to not feel alone.
Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple perceived 911 emergency dispatchers as “the first line of defense because if you need help and call, they’re the first ones there for you. It’s one of the most important jobs in public safety.”
Cmdr. Adam Hornick of the Bethlehem Police Department similarly agreed that dispatchers are important in being the first aspect of lifeline to the callers, until actual officers and emergency personnel can arrive at the scene. While BPD is operating at full-staff now with around 11 dispatchers who work in the actual building, it was down “three to four” dispatchers a few months ago.
Apple said that Albany’s “30 or so” dispatchers work at a separate emergency communications center in Voorheesville and that they’re working towards building a newer one since “they’ve outgrown it.”
While both Albany and Bethlehem are fully staffed (as much as their budgets allow it), they are facing several issues, as mentioned above.
Hornick said that dispatchers start out with around “maybe late $30,000 to $40,000.”
“[In Albany], dispatchers start out with at least $36,000 a year and then climb to the 40s,” Apple said. “They work really hard though despite the low pay, long hours and high stress. They work 12 on, 12 off shifts and get about every other weekend off. So, it typically is 12 hours of calls, calls, calls.”
While Apple wants them to receive higher salaries, he also said that it is important to find ways for them to decompress and momentarily step back from the job’s stressful atmosphere.
“In our new office, there is a quiet room where maybe a dispatcher just had a call from a helpless mother with a crying baby, or about a dead person, or someone who frantically needs verbal help with delivering CPR, the dispatcher can go to that room and settle down,” he said. “People need that! It’s good to decompress.”
He added that recruitment is challenging too. Some dispatchers may get disturbed from answering similar calls like saving a choking baby or from someone who sees someone else drowning.
“That takes an emotional hit and it’s hard to get people to come in and commit hours. There’s a lot of stress that goes into this.”
Hornick noted that the most traumatic calls “can be as short as 30 seconds which feel like 10 whole minutes.”
In an email sent after the interview, he brought up that in his case, “unfortunately, the most memorable calls are the ones with not the best outcomes. The ones that stick with me the most are the ones that deal with the loss of children.”
He also said that it’s important to address the stress that dispatchers feel and reassure them they’re doing a good job, especially since they do help save lives. “Sometimes, it helps when they talk and explain to their coworkers about the incident and the compliments they may get helps. They may also talk to friends or their supervisors. Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking to go outside for a walk to decompress, after handling a call from maybe like a suicidal person, and that’s okay! They need to do that and they should do that.”
Another concern is when there are too many calls at one given time and there are not enough dispatchers to answer them.
Apple said that the excess calls will “get rolled over to another public safety point. At one point, Saratoga County can answer them.” He gave the example of when Albany County received too many calls during the November 2016 shooting at Crossgates Mall, his dispatchers could not handle the sheer volume and numerous calls were transferred to neighboring police departments.
Hornick echoed his sentiment as that situation happens too at BPD. “Sometimes, with too many calls, we prioritize them from most important call to the least. So, the caller may get put on hold and if the call rings so many times, it can get rolled over to another agency. Someone will always answer the phone, but it just may not be on the first or second ring.”
Hornick himself started as a BPD dispatcher back in 1996, during which he said there wasn’t as much great technology yet but he still enjoyed it. However, he pointed out that Bethlehem became the first location in Albany County to use CAD (computer-aided dispatch system) since 1993 which greatly helps the dispatchers in quickly dispatching the needed services to the scene.
While Hornick and Apple both agree that being a dispatcher can be a rewarding job, they also believe one should be aware of the aforementioned various hurdles that come with it.
Hornick recommended that interested people should monitor the Albany County Department of Civil Service website and sign up to take the civil service test. Applicants would undergo intense background checks too.
“While there’s no shortage here, we’re always aggressively recruiting,” concluded Apple. “We want the best person possible.”