7 Investigates: ISP struggling to recruit, retain dispatchers

ISP wrestles with hiring, keeping dispatchers.

MERIDIAN -- High turnover rates and problems with recruiting and retaining employees continues to plague public safety and law enforcement agencies.

It's an issue Idaho State Police has been struggling with for years - one that has led to overtime work and burn-out in dispatch centers.

It's a nationwide problem, and visible here at home. Unfortunately, the challenging and important nature of the job will never change. 7 Investigates found Idaho State Police dispatch centers wrestle with vacancies, leading to quite a bit of taxpayer-funded overtime. But state officials say they are working to tackle the issue.

"It's really really a tough job. They are the real first first responders and they don't get the credit they deserve most of the time," Idaho State Police Regional Communication Center Coordinator Denise King said.

A day in the life of a dispatcher can be intense and stressful; the job of a communications officer is a reactive one, in which employees must be able to handle chaos in any given phone call.

"You have to be on the ready all the time, always on the ready," King added.

And they must be ready to pick up an extra shift for a co-worker.

"You can't not have it covered. It's just not an option," King added. "We can't run short because then it's just too hard on those that are left here to do it."

They also must be willing to work overtime.

"It's a 24/7 job; there has to be somebody here all the time," King said. "The public expects us to be there when they call for help."

But when there's a persistent shortage of communications employees - like Idaho State Police has experienced over the years - there's even more overtime involved. In fiscal year 2016, dispatchers accrued close to 7,900 hours in compensation time and earned more than 1,630 hours in overtime time-and-a-half pay.

A similar trend occurred in 2017: With more than 8,900 hours in compensation time accrued and almost 1,600 hours in overtime pay.

Idaho State Police is also experiencing high turnover rates, ultimately resulting in vacancies and, thus, more overtime.

"Their gas tanks run out sometimes, burn out," ISP State-Wide Communications program manager, Capt. Kevin Haight, said. "We have a number of dispatchers that have been with us for many many years, but there is a fair amount of turnover."

Data shows in fiscal year 2016, there was a 43 percent ISP dispatcher turnover rate, with eight employee separations from the job. Turnover for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are difficult to quantify: the ISP Regional Communication Officer Senior position was created and many of the officers were moved to those roles, meaning employee separations and the number of employees at the end of the fiscal years does not reflect employees who left the agency.

However, the issue is not just with dispatchers; it's with troopers and officers, too.

"It's a tough job. There's only a certain segment of people out there that have an interest in putting their lives on the line and putting themselves in those kinds of positions," Capt. Haight added.

Along with retention, Capt. Haight says recruitment is a huge challenge.

"Recruitment is very tough. We have high standards and we have to have high standards, the public expects that," Haight added. "In addition to that, it's a long process. [Dispatchers] have to go through a very thorough background process, a polygraph, a drug screen, a hearing screen."

Dispatchers-in-training have to complete four months of on-the-job training with an experienced dispatcher.

"And some people don't make it through training," King added.

But this is a challenge facing law enforcement and public safety agencies across the United States.

"It's a major issue and it's not unique to ISP or to any other dispatch center. It is a reality of the job: it's a tough job," Haight said.

Haight tells KTVB the best way to mitigate the issue is to add more employees, but says it's hard to ask for more positions when the agency can't fill the positions they have.

"As an agency, it is our responsibility and me, as a program manger, to find ways to try to mitigate that and to ensure that doesn't happen. Whether that be through getting additional positions granted to me from the legislature, or whatever that is," Capt. Haight said. "And we're constantly looking at those things and listening and trying to make sure we've got a program that can sustain quality employees we have."

To help address the problem, Project CHOICE was implemented in Idaho several years ago. You might notice when you register your vehicle, you pay a $3 fee. That money goes to Idaho State Police.

"Those funds are intended for recruitment, retention and training of key employment positions within ISP," Haight added.

Project CHOICE is an effort to invest in and incentivize dispatchers, officers and forensic personnel. Under Idaho code, the fee is "exclusively exclusively for the purposes of creating a career ladder within the Idaho State Police and to provide salaries to encourage the hiring and retention of trained and qualified employees for Idaho state police positions".

In addition, a couple years ago the legislature appropriated more money for ISP dispatchers' salaries.

"We did see and have seen more applicants coming in our door testing for this position than what we were seeing before that," Haight said.

"I believe it does help," King added.

But the burden of recruiting and retaining dispatchers and officers continues to go on the backs of the employees themselves, the department and the public.

Capt. Haight tells KTVB there are 31 positions at the Meridian dispatch center and 16 in the Coeur d'Alene center. He says for the first time in years, every position is filled at the Meridian facility and he feels that's a step in the right direction.

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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