Officers standing in for 911 dispatchers

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Jordan Hengst, a K-9 handler for the Clovis Police Department, has been filling in as a dispatcher off and on for the past month.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

The next time you call 911, the voice on the other end of the phone could be a police officer or even the police chief. That’s because the number of dispatchers has plummeted to a crisis point, and officers are being pulled in on overtime to staff the phones.

Lt. Jim Schoeffel, Clovis police dispatch supervisor, cited burnout as the prime reason for the dispatcher drain.

“They’re not running out the door in a tizzy. Most of them leave on good terms and would be eligible for rehire,” he said. “They say (I) love (my) job but I need a break.”

Schoeffel said another dispatcher quit Thursday, bringing the number of full-time dispatchers to six.

The department should have 15, he said.

“It doesn’t really mean anything to (citizens) because we’re going to answer the phones and we’re going to get (them) what (they) need,” he said.

Residents may see services delayed or reduced.

“If I have to pull a captain out of the office to do (dispatch), then there’s nobody doing their job. It’s a vicious cycle.”

About a week ago officers began filling volunteer overtime slots in the dispatch center, coming in at peak times to answer calls so dispatchers aren’t overwhelmed.

Officer Jordan Hengst, a K-9 handler, works 6:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. and has been filling in at dispatch during the day for the last week.

The four-year department veteran said walking in the dispatcher’s shoes has taught him a lot.

“After working on the street and coming in here, you get a whole new respect for what they do and what they have to put up with,” Hengst said.

“And you realize that their job is just as stressful as ours if not more so. Not (everyone) can do it.”

A minimum of two dispatchers can run a shift, but a skeleton crew wears personnel down, taxing efficiency and long-term job satisfaction, Schoeffel said.

As numbers dwindle, Schoeffel said the problem is perpetuated among remaining staff who are stretched to the limit.

New candidates surface, but the hiring process can be tedious and involves testing and a background check.

Schoeffel said it is not uncommon for newly hired dispatchers to get partway into the six-week training program and decide the job is not for them.

Statistics show the ability to engage in high-paced multitasking required of the job is possessed by an estimated 10 percent or less of the population, Schoeffel said.

He said the department is having both internal and interagency discussions in an effort to tap other resources and find a way to reduce responsibilities dispatch personnel shoulder.

They are also considering other options, like part-time or entry-level dispatch positions.

In the meantime, Schoeffel said it is a nonstop juggling act.

“We’ll answer the phones, we’ll get it done. We just need people. We need help,” he said.

By the numbers
$10.17 to $11.47
Hourly pay a Clovis dispatcher receives depending on training level.

Fast facts
Dispatchers answer 911 and administrative calls, dispatching police, fire, emergency medical services. They handle radio traffic between officers and agencies, maintain emergency alert equipment, log call records and enter information into the National Crime Information Center database, among other duties.

They also dispatch for Curry County on weekends and for rural fire departments, Texico services and sometimes state police.