Malheur County’s dispatch center running short staffed

Charlotte New works in the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center in early October. New is leaving her job for more stable hours and the sheriff’s office faces an employee shortage at the center. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL).

VALE – The day began calmly for Malheur County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Charlotte New with routine radio traffic and no major incidents.

Until 3 p.m.

First there was a report of a burglary in progress. Than a caller reported an assault. Not long after, an ambulance had to be dispatched for a medical emergency.

Then there was the car crash.

“There are times when it can seem overwhelming. All it takes is one incident. But you do the best you can,” said New, 29.

Every 911 call in the county is routed through the dispatch center in Vale where someone like New fills the multi-tiered role of phone operator, reporter, technician and, sometimes, a medical lifeline.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said as of Sept. 14, the dispatch center fielded more than 57,000 calls for service and nearly 10,000 911 calls.

The dispatch center sits inside the sheriff’s office, a wide room with subdued lighting lined with desks against a wall of windows. The desk are guarded by computers that link dispatchers with a state database. The windows look out over a hallway that leads deeper into the facility to the jail. A television – its volume turned down – on a wall splashes colored images across the center.

The mood is low key, routine, as an occasional call flashes across the radio waves from as police officer somewhere in the county.

While the work seemed to be routine one day last week, the pace can change in seconds. Some days, the radio traffic blurs into single long burn of voices and emergencies, every one of the highest priority.

New’s time as a dispatcher, though, is short. She will depart the sheriff’s office for another job and her absence will hit a center that is already understaffed.

Ideally the dispatch center has a staff of 11. Now, though, it carries seven people on its roster and when New leaves it will be down to six dispatchers.

The low staffing level creates new challenges for the dispatch center, run by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, as it focuses on its main mission but also must juggle a series of competing priorities daily.

Undersheriff Travis Johnson said a dispatcher’s job isn’t easy. The hours are long with a shift lasting 10 hours and the stress level can climb in seconds. The shortage of help has required other employees at the sheriff’s office to fill in at times.

Johnson himself has stepped up when there are manning gaps and so has Rich Harriman, county emergency services director.

Johnson said the personnel shortage results from a combination of factors, including retirements.

Yet he said the sheriff’s office is also up against a robust economy and other employers who can pay just as well with more stable hours.

“This job you have to work nights, rotating shifts, holidays. There is a lot of opportunity out there right now. There are struggles on their end with family and personal life and when there is an easy out with jobs that pay well, it kind of becomes a no brainer,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the sheriff’s office starts an entry-level dispatcher out at $18 an hour. That wage, he said, just holds the line in terms of competiveness.

“Some places are paying big wages and it is getting more and more competitive, especially when you have the shift work we have,” he said.

With just six employees, scheduling is tough, said Johnson.

“The biggest problem is if you get some sickness or something like that, it hard to plan for,” said Johnson.

Fewer dispatchers means the workload increases, said Johnson.

 “When we are fully staffed we like to have three on during the day because afternoons are our busiest time and at least two on other shifts,” said Johnson.

Now, though, there are two people scheduled for the day shift and one person on the night shift.

New, a native of England, said she loves her work as a dispatcher.

“If I could find a way to keep this job I would,” said New. She has worked as a dispatcher since 2018.

New, though, said she wants to spend more time with her children – all under 9 – and get more stable hours.

“It’s been the hardest decision to walk away but I need a set schedule,” said New.

New said she will miss the people in the sheriff’s office and the first responders she is in daily contact with.

“I feel like they are like my family. You get used to their voices and the way they do things,” she said.

Johnson said the sheriff’s office is working to fill in the empty seats at the center. He said three people are now in the background check phase for dispatch jobs and the sheriff’s office received nine other applications.

The hiring process isn’t just about employing a person to sit in a seat and answer a phone. Each individual must be trained, said Johnson, and that adds to the front-end time commitment for the sheriff’s office.

“We want to get back up to staffing as quickly as possible but we can only train so many people at one time,” said Johnson.

Johnson said he doesn’t believe the personnel shortfall has impacted public safety but fewer people does affect overall efficiency.

“We still focus on major crimes, but there are just times when they are busy and we want to make sure we are taking 911 calls and if it gets that busy, I may not pull over someone for an expired tag on their car or for not using their blinker,” said Johnson.

Wolfe said if someone is interested in a job in dispatch to call his office and speak to him, Johnson or Harriman.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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