When an emergency arises in the Santa Fe area, people dial 911 and a dispatcher at the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center answers the call.
But, lately, the center has had fewer dispatchers to pick up the phone. Of the 43 full-time positions available at the center, only 22 such positions are filled. Among them are four part-time temporary dispatchers, two new hires and two candidates in the background check process, Director Vanessa Marquez said.
“There’s definitely a shortage, and we’re hoping to hire a number of new dispatchers to increase our staffing levels,” she said. “We know that there are individuals that are currently seeking employment, especially after COVID, and we strongly encourage them to apply to be an emergency communication specialist trainee.”
The dispatcher shortage could be a factor in recent increases in response times.
At a recent city of Santa Fe Public Safety Committee meeting, Santa Fe police reported that from February to March there was a one-minute increase in response times for priority I – the most urgent calls – from the start of the call to dispatch, and about a seven-minute increase for priority II calls.
According to SFPD, the median time from the start of the call to dispatch was 16 minutes, 25 seconds. The average time for priority II calls in March was 40:13.
Marquez said response times can vary depending on the availability of emergency responders and the type of response that’s needed. Despite being short-staffed, Marquez said she doesn’t have any concerns about the center’s ability to answer and dispatch 911 calls.
To be at a fully comfortable staffing level, Marquez said she’d need about 30 full-time employees.
However, these issues aren’t unique to Santa Fe’s dispatch center. There’s a dispatcher shortage across the nation, Marquez said.
Communication Specialists Christopher Flores, left, and Alvina Dickson work answering calls at the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
In 2018, USA Today reported on the nationwide shortage, stating response times were getting longer as there were fewer dispatchers to pick up the emergency phone calls.
The national standard is to answer 90% of 911 calls in 10 seconds or less, and dispatchers at the center answer 92% of calls in 10 seconds or less, Marquez said.
In March, the center handled a total of 26,736 calls. Of those, 12,708 were calls for service for emergency responders and 6,039 were actual 911 emergency calls.
Marquez said it’s difficult to say why there’s a shortage, because people can leave the position for many reasons. She gave the example of some employees using the dispatch center as a launching point for a public safety career. Some dispatchers go on to join fire departments or the police force, she said.
“I’ve been in this business almost 24 years now,” she said. “I started as a floor dispatcher and there has always been high turnover in the center. I would say typically it’s about 30%, and that’s not just for our center. It’s nationwide.”
Marquez said dispatchers aren’t always considered public safety workers, which could also be a factor. On the federal level, 911 dispatchers are considered clerical workers. That not only affects how the public views them, but also their retirement and benefits.
Communications Team Leader Ashley Woods, a dispatcher at the center for eight years, said she was drawn to the position because she wanted to do something different. Within the first few weeks of working on the dispatch floor, she fell in love with it.
“I think the job, first and foremost, is like, beautifully chaotic in a weird way,” Woods said. “Because you never know what you’re going to do (and) every day is going to be something new.”
Woods said she finds the job inspiring because, no matter what she does, she’s helping someone – whether it’s a life-or-death emergency, or she’s calming someone down who just lost their pet.
Woods said it took about a year of training to get certified, but the training continued throughout her career. In fact, Woods said she was going to attend a training session later that day.
Throughout her career, Woods said she’s had a couple of calls that really affected her and she’s been able to speak with management to get counseling.
Marquez said the center does have a counseling service dispatchers can use.
“I think this job can be very stressful, but it’s also very rewarding for myself, personally. When I walk out the door, I try to leave everything at the door,” Woods said. “I try not to take things personally when I’m dealing with a calling party that’s not happy with the situation.”
Woods said she knows the center is short-staffed, but she tries to come into the center with a positive attitude and in a good mood. In her experience, the center has always been short-staffed.
“Luckily, I’ve worked with a lot of great people who are willing to overlook the overtime, the hard hours and the short-staffing to continue to do the job that we signed up to do,” Woods said. “We do it for each other and we do it for the community that we work with.”