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Fla. 9-1-1 Dispatchers Face Low Pay, High Turnover

Nov. 20—They serve as a bridge between crisis and intervention in a job that often requires them to hear the worst of humanity. Each day a legion of 9-1-1 dispatchers in Flagler and Volusia counties handle thousands of calls that can range in urgency from routine to catastrophic.

"They are the unsung heroes of all law enforcement and first responders," Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said. "Not only are they the voice of the Sheriff's Office, but they also help protect our deputies."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor rates emergency dispatching as one of the country's most stressful professions, a fact that plays a role both near and far. About half of Volusia County's new dispatchers quit during their first year on the job while nearly a third of Flagler's recruits resign, officials said.

High turnover rates and staffing shortages at dispatch centers are a nationwide issue as agencies across the country struggle to find qualified call takers who can maintain their composure through intense trauma.

"They have to be the voice that re-introduces some level of calmness and assurance into what is often a very difficult situation for the people who are calling," said John Balloni, director of the Communications Center in Volusia County. "People are screaming at them, they're swearing at them, and they're upset. We teach them, yes, that's all going to happen to you, but your job is still to be that voice of calm and reason, assure them that help is on the way."

Volusia dispatchers handle more than 700,000 emergency and nonemergency calls each year for nearly 30 law enforcement, fire and emergency medical agencies. Flagler deals with over 200,000 calls from three policing agencies and four fire departments.

While police officers, firefighters and paramedics may be the face citizens see in a crisis, a dispatcher's greeting is the first voice they hear when they call for help.

"When people are going through the worst day of their life, we're the first person they talk to," said Christina Mortimer, director of Flagler County's communications department.

Dispatchers must become state certified and undergo eight weeks of classroom training followed by hundreds of hours of on-the-job floor training before becoming fully trained, a process that Balloni says can take up to 18 months.

He estimates it costs about $100,000 to replace a fully trained operator and said about 50 percent of hires who go through the regimen quit within 12 months. Staly estimated the turnover rate for new hires in Flagler is about 30 percent.

The strain is two-fold as it means an increased workload for the dispatchers who do stay and bloated overtime costs for the counties forced to staff the call centers.

One factor is pay as the starting annual salary for dispatchers in Volusia and Flagler is about $22,000 and $28,000, respectively, according to officials. Staly said candidates must also go through stringent background checks that filter out some recruits. Others are suited to endure the relentless volume of calls, which at times can be heartbreaking and bring dispatchers to tears.

Volusia has criminal justice programs at high schools in the county to recruit students and Staly said he has plans to start a similar program in Flagler next school year.

A 2012 study conducted by Northern Illinois University professor Heather Pierce showed 9-1-1 telecommunicators have the same increased risk of developing duty-related post traumatic stress disorder as their brethren in law enforcement. But many who handle the calls say the key to coping is trying to keep yourself emotionally detached from the situations and focus on getting the information to render aid.

"The job is difficult, especially if you're new at it," said Patricia McDonnell, a Volusia dispatch supervisor who's been on the radio since 1986. "It's a lot to hear people at the worst moments of their life are now in your ear. Some people can shut that off and some people can't. But if you're going to survive, you have to."

Despite the stress, McDonnell said she loves her job. Her satisfaction comes from guiding callers through CPR that saves a loved one, or the adrenaline rush of helping officers capture fleeing suspects.

"I love dispatching, it's exciting to me," she said. "I like being on the radio, I like being good at it, and I like when the people on the other side of the radio know that they can count on me. Don't worry about it, I've got this."

Emergency operators play a critical role in the overall public safety system. The information they gather in real time helps police capture suspects and often helps detectives solve crimes.

They look up criminal histories, run driver's licenses, check license plates, search for warrants and stolen vehicles, and perform a handful of other tasks simultaneously. Some spend their day on the radio dispatching calls and relaying critical information to police officers, firefighters and paramedics as they respond to emergencies. Others have to draw information from 9-1-1 callers, who are often distraught and emotionally unnerved and, at times, faced with a life-or-death moment.

On a daily basis, each dispatcher may handle as many as 200 calls that can range from comical to monotonous. In a flash, tragedy can unfold in the form of a medical emergency, fire or the dreaded call of "shots fired" over police scanners. Through it all, the operators must remain the calm eye of the storm, coordinating resources and guiding responders to emergencies.

"It's like stepping on a loaded freight train that's going downhill and it's on fire. That's exactly what it's like some days," said veteran Flagler dispatcher Joe Esposito, who works law enforcement calls. "You'd be surprised the wealth of information that we can gather in that short amount of time."

Diovanni White has spent the past eight months in training handling nonemergency calls in Flagler. He performed para-rescue missions in the military and volunteered at police agencies in Hawaii and Los Angeles before joining Flagler's dispatch team.

"It's a different way to think and process as opposed to being more reactive," he said, "where you can just jump out and help somebody the way that you handle it on the road or in the trenches in the military."

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