For anyone who felt put off while calling Tooele County Dispatch last month, don’t worry: It’s not because of you.
On July 16 an already short-handed dispatch center was overwhelmed by call demands when a wildfire in Stockton threatened homes, caused an evacuation and damaged the town’s water supply. At the same time, police were busy assisting with the Country Explosion concert at Desert Peak Complex.
Then on July 21, dispatch personnel were again stretched thin with other wildfires and incidents across the county when the Anaconda Fire flared and threatened to burn the community of Pine Canyon. That wildfire also caused a partial evacuation while fire crews battled the blaze into the night.
Dispatch Sgt. Randi Gamble with the Tooele County Sheriff’s Office, said while dispatchers are trained to ask specific questions about the nature of an emergency, staff was spread too thin to give much attention to individual calls during the Stockton and Anaconda wildfires.
“There are certain protocols we have to follow, but we just didn’t have the time,” she said.
The dispatch center currently has 14 employees, including Lt. Regina Nelson, who almost strictly handles administrative duties for the facility. A “fully staffed” 12-hour shift means three dispatchers are on duty. Nelson said between vacation days, sick leave and mandatory out-of-office training, only four days in July were fully staffed, and past months have been similarly spotty.
“We just had an inability to handle some calls,” she said of the combination of an understaffed facility and the higher demand. “We couldn’t triage.”
Two dispatchers were on-duty during the Stockton fire, including Gamble. Gamble said besides a grass fire that started earlier in the day in Tooele, there was a tremendous response from fire agencies from around the county. With that, dispatchers did the best they could to coordinate the heavy radio traffic between the different agencies.
“We probably should have opened up more fire channels, but we simply didn’t have the manpower,” she said. “I’ve worked here 17 years and that was the busiest I ever remember being.”
Calls made on the non-emergency line fell to the lowest priority, she said, and many callers had to be put on hold. Gamble called off-duty dispatchers to help, but she said she felt the level of service dispatchers could give to callers was limited.
A similar problem occurred during the Anaconda wildfire, when again, only two dispatchers were on duty. Nelson was installing a computer monitor in the center at the time, and began dispatching herself. Gamble said even with Nelson’s help, the dispatchers were kept at a constant, driving pace for hours.
“We couldn’t even get out to go to the bathroom,” Gamble said.
The two incidents, though uncommonly dramatic, highlight a problem that has only worsened since the county’s budget crisis.
“I know the county’s on a budget,” Gamble said. “Tooele’s growing and we shouldn’t be at the staffing level that we were at 10 years ago.”
The current level of 14 is actually one fewer than the 15 maintained over the last several years. Nelson said even with a staff of 15, the dispatch center is still behind in terms of dispatcher per call.
Among dispatch centers with similar call volumes, Tooele County’s staffing level is low. Logan/Cache County Dispatch, which in 2013 had 13,832 calls, is staffed by 22 full-time dispatchers, as well as a handful of part-time dispatchers. The dispatch center in Orem, which had 13,688 calls in 2013, has 17 full-time dispatchers, as well as some part-time staff.
Tooele County, according to the same information, handled 12,485 calls in 2013; however, according to numbers kept by Tooele County Dispatch, the center handled 13,659 calls.
A study by the National Emergency Number Agency, or NENA, in May 2013 also indicated that the Tooele center was understaffed. Based on call volume and population, both current and projected, the study indicated that 18 full-time dispatch members would be an optimum number to provide quality dispatch service to the county.
Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park said the department had been shooting for 16 dispatch members a few years ago, and was making strides towards that number before the budget crisis.
However, Park noted that, because dispatch is not a state-mandated duty of the sheriff’s office, it is funded somewhat differently. Part of the funding comes from the sheriff’s office, while other entities — individual fire and police departments, and emergency medical services — pay a fee based on the population of the area served and the number of calls a department gets.
Park said as it is, the dispatch center is, at times, severely understaffed — a problem present throughout the sheriff’s office. The job’s tendency to be one of feast or famine, too, he said, compounds the problem.
“Dispatch is a funny animal in that when things on the outside get catastrophic, there’s not enough places for people to sit that we need — we need so many people,” Park said. “Other times, there are downtimes, in the middle of the night. It’s a little bit of a tedious job, but you can’t plan for catastrophes, and therein lies the problem.”
Nelson said she will be requesting a budget increase to hire three more full-time dispatchers next year, which would ensure that every shift had at least three dispatchers on duty at all times. However, she said, she understands the budget situation with the county, and does not want to increase dispatch fees to make up the difference.
“[The commissioners] understand. They know we’re understaffed,” she said. “We worry about the callers. A lot of them don’t know how busy they are.”
While there is the occasional non-emergency emergency call — Gamble cited one call during Country Explosion when one woman called 911 to report that someone had cut in front of her in line with a camping trailer — dispatchers value every call, even if an incident is reported multiple times, Nelson said. Too many calls about an incident is preferred over not hearing about it at all, she said.
“We’re just really busy. We don’t want people calling in to be unaware of that,” Nelson said. “We don’t want people to think their calls are unimportant.”