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A rural Washington emergency dispatch center closes as 911 operator shortage persists

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When you call 911, you expect someone to answer quickly and send help. But emergency dispatchers are in short supply these days. In Washington state, a dispatch center had to close because of a lack of staff. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network reports.

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AUSTIN JENKINS, BYLINE: It's the afternoon rush hour, and the pace is picking up at the Washington State Patrol's communications center in Tacoma.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nine-one-one, what's the location of your emergency?

JENKINS: Four dispatchers sit at sprawling consoles answering 911 calls...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And it's just two cars involved?

JENKINS: ...And dispatching state troopers to where help is needed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, we're notifying troopers in the area. Thank you so much for the call.

JENKINS: The dispatchers are in perpetual motion - answering the phone, typing on their keyboards and relaying information via the police radio, all the while trying to keep callers calm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I really appreciate the patience that you've exhibited.

JENKINS: Under the best of circumstances, the role of 911 dispatcher is stressful. But these days it's especially hard. That's because, like in so many industries, there's a shortage of people willing to do the job. The Washington State Patrol currently has nearly 50 communication officer openings across the state. That's a vacancy rate approaching 40%.

JEFF HURSH: It's tough.

JENKINS: Jeff Hursh is the manager of this dispatch center.

HURSH: Right now, I think I'm down three spots that I could fill if I could find people right now. And I know we're better off than I think almost all the other centers in the state are.

JENKINS: Recently, the Washington State Patrol decided to close one of its more rural dispatch centers for lack of staff. Hursh attributes the vacancies to a combination of factors, including the disruption caused by COVID and the particular demands of being a dispatcher.

HURSH: I think it's just the nature of the 24 hours a day, seven day a week job. It's one thing to say, I understand that when you take the job, it's another thing to be working it.

KAYLA WHITE: Nine-one-one, what's the location of your emergency?

JENKINS: That's Kayla White. With two kids at home, most weeks, she's pulling three mandatory 12-hour shifts, plus two more eight-hour days.

WHITE: We definitely need more people with for sure. It would take a lot of stress off of a lot of people.

JENKINS: This story is playing out across the country, says April Heinze of the National Emergency Number Association. Heinze says, before COVID and the so-called great resignation, there was a 15- to 20% vacancy rate among emergency dispatchers. Now she estimates it's over 30% nationally with areas where it's much higher.

APRIL HEINZE: I would say that it is close to a crisis, and in some areas it may be a crisis.

JENKINS: Heinze spoke from the exhibition floor of a bustling public safety convention, where she says there was plenty of talk about staffing shortages.

HEINZE: Part of it is educating that this is a true profession that is actually quite rewarding. By the end of the day, it is amazing how many people you help.

JENKINS: Heinze says some agencies are now offering hiring bonuses or re-evaluating pay and benefits. In the future, she says, technology may allow some calls to be handled via automation, replacing the need for so many dispatchers. While citizens rely on 911 as a lifeline, so do first responders in the field.

ANTHONY RODRIGUEZ: (Inaudible).

JENKINS: Take state trooper Anthony Rodriguez. He patrols Interstate 5 near Tacoma. His days can be busy racing from call to call. But he knows the dispatchers are under particular pressure, so much so that sometimes the troopers are asked to restrict their radio traffic. Rodriguez calls communications the backbone of the public safety system.

RODRIGUEZ: Without them, we couldn't do our job. They're behind the scenes, but they're what makes everything move forward.

JENKINS: They're also the ones who will tell trooper Rodriguez where he's needed next. For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."