Hamilton County 911 dispatchers work ‘crazy amounts’ of mandatory OT amid critical staffing shortage

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 7:41 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - The 911 dispatchers who answer more than a thousand emergency calls daily across Hamilton County and then quickly relay that critical information to police and fire crews so they can respond are working “crazy amounts” of mandatory overtime to keep up with critically low staffing levels, their boss says.

The rise in overtime so far this year is not impacting call times or service, according to Andrew Knapp, director of the county’s communications center.

But it comes amid a very real struggle for Hamilton County - and other dispatch centers locally and nationally - to attract good, quality candidates to a demanding and stressful job, he said.

It also comes at a time when some surrounding counties and agencies are paying experienced dispatchers more, making it hard for Hamilton County to be competitive and retain valuable employees, he said.

“We have been struggling with a staffing issue for the last several years,” Knapp said Thursday just before taking County Commissioner Denise Driehaus on a tour of the 911 facility in Colerain Township.

“Our folks are tired, 12 hour days have become somewhat the norm versus the exception. You know, in years past, overtime was a positive thing. It was a way to make some extra money, but when it becomes a routine and you can’t get your off days and you’re not guaranteed that you’re going to go home when your shift ends, that becomes problematic.”

Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus (far left) tours the county's 911 communications...
Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus (far left) tours the county's 911 communications center in Colerain Township Thursday.(FOX19 NOW)

But now the staffing shortage has become so bad since the first of the year, all the 911 dispatchers are clocking in 12-16 hours of mandatory overtime weekly.

“I don’t even know how to quantify it. Crazy amounts,” Knapp said. “Overtime has become more prevalent and become more the rule than the exception. They are all working mandatory overtime. We’ve had it off and on here and there, but this situation where we are at has been exacerbating since the first of the year. We always had issues with retention. But in my 30 years of experience, I’ve never seen this much difficulty attracting good quality candidates.”

The 911 dispatchers also are now working in a building they’ve outgrown, according to Knapp.

It became apparent during the coronavirus pandemic when he said they realized it was hard to socially distance in their current quarters. The facility, located off Colerain Avenue on Civic Center Drive, was built and designed in the 1970s.

The Hamilton County Communications Center has outgrown its facility in Colerain Township, which...
The Hamilton County Communications Center has outgrown its facility in Colerain Township, which was designed and built in the 1970s, says its director, Andrew Knapp.(FOX19 NOW)

Staffing shortages are nothing new, especially over the past two to three years, but now each shift is running one to two dispatchers short.

Day shift has 11 communication officers, 13 work second shift, and 11 to nine work third shift.

“The maximum we would go would be two people down from our normal compliment (each shift),” Knapp said. “They are doing it now.”

Supervisors will then fill in, he said, but then that keeps them from their supervisory duties like employee reviews and engagement and strategic planning, etc.

“I’ve been coming in and working 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. in addition to my 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift,” said Jessica Prichard, one of the communications supervisors who has worked for the county for 15 years.

She also is a wife and mother with two small children and two step-children.

“I pick that time up so I’m not missing out on time with my family, so I’m sacrificing sleep to come into work,” she said.

Prichard says she sees the toll the extra hours are taking on her co-workers.

“Absolutely, every day. Especially when people are leaving and going to other agencies. It’s having an impact on our staffing, which as a result is turning into mandatory overtime and they’re just being overwork, so it’s very hard.”

The county’s communications center receives an average of 1,300 to 1,500 calls per day.

“It’s extremely stressful, mostly because we’re having the change in weather, call volume is increasing, you know, it’s just extremely overwhelming at times,” Prichard said.

“You don’t know what call you’re going to get, so one call to the next you can go from a lockout to a non-breather, to a fight to a shooting.”

She said her stress level on a scale of 10 is between an eight and a nine.

“It’s extremely stressful,” she said. “You just never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes I have anxiety, especially on high call volume times, when the phones are ringing and you have a lot of high priority (911 calls). I’ve been doing this for 15 years I don’t what else I would do at this point.”

Despite these challenges, the county is still consistently exceeding the state standard to receive funding, Knapp said. That requires 90% of 911 calls to be answered in 10 seconds or less and 95% to be answered in 20 seconds or less to receive funding.

Dispatchers start out making a comparable salary to other counties and agencies, about $40,000 a year, Knapp says. There also is a benefits package.

But Hamilton County’s more experienced dispatchers, who have worked 10 years, are paid 16% less than dispatchers in surrounding counties like Clermont and Warren and agencies such the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State Highway Patrol, according to an analysis provided to the county from the dispatchers’ union attorney.

“Our salary structure right now is not competitive and we have lost employees to other counties because of it,” Knapp said. “I had a 20-year veteran who went to Amberley Village and got a $7,000 a year raise with less responsibility.”

The staffing shortage is impacting their ability to expand their skills with more training.

Knapp says so far anything they’ve asked for funding wise they get, technology, too.

We are on the leading edge and doing our best with the training we have. So it all comes down to staffing. There is advanced training I want to get for our staff, and the funding is available, but the staffing and support people (to free up dispatchers to train) are not available.”

He says you can’t blame it on the coronavirus pandemic because the problem predates it.

In fact, he notes, calls to 911 went down during the stay-at-home-order last year, at the onset of the pandemic.

“This is a 911 industry-wide issue throughout the country. Public safety communications is a difficult vocation. It’s a 24/7 operation, weekends, holidays and these are critical positions that the public expects to ‘just work.’”

“Our dispatch staff are talking to residents on the worst days of their lives as they report catastrophic and oftentimes life-changing events as they make desperate pleas for help. We speak to parents that have lost their children. We speak to wives that discover their husband of decades has passed. Consider the overdose epidemic we’re experiencing and yes, we speak to those folks as well,” Knapp said.

“The 911 operators and dispatchers are the vital eyes and ears of public safety, yet they’re not recognized as first responders. Even though we are truly the first, first responders. We’re the rarely seen, voice of calm in a sea of chaos. The cumulative effects of this job exact an emotional toll on our staff that is sometimes not recognized until serious damage has been done. Yet, to me, it’s been a rewarding career and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”

He said they are working with the county administration, who recognize there is a wage discrepancy and they are all working to address that as best they can.

There also is a recruit class underway right now.

‘The challenge is that we need to put a better value on what these folks do as a living. We aren’t even considered first responders,” Knapp said.

Hamilton County Communications Center starts paying emergency dispatchers, also called...
Hamilton County Communications Center starts paying emergency dispatchers, also called communications officers, $19.50 an hour plus benefits. You must have a GED or high school diploma.(FOX19 NOW)

Ohio’s 911 fees are the second-lowest in the United States, according to Knapp.

He says there is a $0.25 fee each month on your cell phone that is collected at the state level and distributed to local 911 centers or Public Safety Answering Points.

Indiana is $1.00, and Kentucky can be up to $4.00.

“The funds that I receive from the state of Ohio was capped in 2013 equates to only about 5% of my overall budget. Despite this, recent mandates by the state require 911 centers to comply with extensive rules or risk losing funding,” Knapp said.

County Commissioner Driehaus said she appreciates all the 911 dispatchers and supervisors, noting “this is a real calling for the individuals who work at 911, you need a certain skill set. They are taking calls non-stop and serving stressful situations in our community so I’m very grateful.

“They are busy, I will say that, and we’re always recruiting for employees and I know we have a recruiting class going through right now.”

She said county leaders are evaluating their pay, where the county is competitively and “we will improve where we need to.

“These folks are under stress because they are taking these calls all day long. We have situations county-wide where we have not kept up in the past when It comes to wages in certain circumstances and we need to take a look at that and say how can we remain competitive throughout this region as Hamilton County?

“Call time has not been impacted by any of what we have talked about, we are above the average. We need to keep bringing people in so we don’t have a situation where we don’t have (good) call times.”

Hamilton County Communications Center (HCCC) has multiple 911 dispatcher vacancies, also called communications officers.

The only requirements are a GED or high school diploma, drug test and detailed criminal background check.

There is a typing and multitask style test that is included as part of the hiring process.

The job starts at $19.50 per hour. It also offers:

  • Medical insurance (optional dental & vision)
  • 11 paid holidays per year
  • Paid sick leave
  • Paid vacation time
  • Uniforms
  • All training (6-9 months) is paid and is conducted at the HCCC
  • Employees participate in the Ohio State Employees Retirement Plan

Click here to apply.

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