The center that handles 911 calls for Natrona County is understaffed, under-supervised and overworked, according to an outside review of the Casper Police Department.
However, the problem isn’t limited to the Casper/Natrona County Public Safety Communications Center. Across the state, dispatch centers report staffing shortages, which can hamper first responders’ effectiveness.
The staffing issues can be costly. In Casper, the center paid for more than 1,000 hours of overtime in the last year.
The center is wholly operated by the Casper Police Department, but used by 12 different emergency agencies across the county. It’s staff dispatch police, firefighters and medics to incidents within the county. Additionally, the center is responsible for handling calls for Life Flight, Metro Animal Services and Wyoming Medical Center. On nights and weekends, it deals with calls for street, water and sewer departments.
Even during a down economy, attracting potential dispatchers can prove difficult. City Manager Carter Napier attributed those difficulties to the job requirements and the stress of the profession.
“Dispatchers are among the toughest positions to hire,” he said.
Casper’s dispatch center is staffed by one manager, one supervisor, one call-taker and 13 dispatchers. However, the center’s manager works at the police headquarters, according to a report published by the review body. As a result, the supervisor is responsible for overseeing 14 subordinates in day-to-day operations, according to the report. Were the center fully staffed, that ratio would jump to one supervisor per 20 subordinates.
“The ratio of one supervisor to 20 subordinates is beyond reason by itself,” the report states. “Let alone in a highly charged environment of a 24/7 emergency dispatch center.”
Six open positions at the center mean more than a quarter of its authorized staffing is not filled. As a result, the center paid for more than 1,000 overtime hours from July 1, 2016, through June 30.
A police department spokesman said that the dispatch center director was away on Thursday and Friday for training and unavailable for an interview.
The staffing issues at the dispatch center were included in a larger review of the entire department, which was released last month. It used data, officer interviews, a site visit and more to assess all aspects of the police department, from record keeping to the handling of investigations.
The problems noted in the report aren’t wholly confined to Natrona County. Jackson, Gillette and Cheyenne authorities also cited staffing difficulties. Sheridan’s dispatch center is at full staffing “for the first time in quite some time,” Sheridan Police Lt. Travis Koltiska said.
In Cheyenne, 18 of 26 authorized positions are filled, according to Glen Crumpton, director of Laramie County Combined Communications Center.
The Laramie County center raised the entry pay rate by a dollar an hour two years ago and didn’t see any increase in qualified applicants. Changing hiring and testing practices likewise produced no result.
“It is a difficult task to try to fill the seats in a dispatch center,” Crumpton said.
Over the 10 years Crumpton’s been on the job, he has had staffing problems, he said. Crumpton chalked the hiring and retention problems up to the emotionally draining nature of the work.
“It’s just a unique job,” Crumpton said. “It’s hard.”
Being fully staffed allows for easy handling of large-scale events and helps with coverage of vacancies for training or sickness, Koltiska said.
Since the Sheridan center reached full staffing, Koltiska said he’s noticed that dispatchers are more capable of coordinating with various departments and assigning tasks in large-scale emergencies.
The review recommends a few changes to help manage the problems that stem from staffing shortages.
Instead of paying overtime, the report recommends the police department hire part-time staff to fill in gaps and ease workloads during busy times.
Because 83 percent of calls coming to the center were not related to emergencies, the report suggests setting up voicemail extensions for individual officers and introducing an electronic phone tree.
About a third of calls coming into the center come from people looking to reach a specific officer or employee, according to an estimate cited in the report. By setting up voicemail extensions for individual officers, people could directly contact the officers who worked their cases and bypass the communications center.
An electronic phone would likewise direct non-emergency calls away from communications center employees, instead allowing callers to directly contact the department they are seeking.
The report also recommends creating a joint phone operator and receptionist position to help people walking into police headquarters. That role is largely handled by records department staff at the moment, which has a backlog of old evidence.
Napier said he was skeptical of converting a phone-only position to also include receptionist duties. That would tax an already stressed office, he said.
Otherwise, Napier said changes that would improve the efficiency of the city are welcomed. He specifically suggested expanding the department’s community safety officer program to handle receptionist work. Expansion of the community safety officer program is also recommended in the report.