On worst day of your life, they answer | VailDaily.com

On worst day of your life, they answer

Kira Horvath/Vail DailyExpensive housing and stress are two likely culprits for a staffing shortage at Vail's 911 center, which handles emergency calls for the entire county officials say.

VAIL ” Jennifer Kirkland answered the 911 call before the first ring had stopped. A man explained he had locked his keys in his car.

Perhaps it wasn’t an emergency, but Kirkland dutifully offered him the number of a local locksmith. All the while, she rapidly typed his name, phone number and a description of his problem into one of the six computer screens in front of her.

The 911 call was just one of many calls Kirkland fielded in a few minutes. A resident called looking for a certain police officer. A police record-keeper sought a morsel of information about a cell phone that has been lost. A person called wondering if an alarm had been triggered at a hotel.

The job can be stressful, but it’s rewarding, Kirkland said.

“Every day I come to work, I get to help somebody,” he said.

The Vail Communications Center, in the Vail Municipal Building, is the way people who need help get in touch with 13 agencies who can help them ” such as police, firefighters and paramedics.

But the need for dispatchers is increasing. There are now six vacancies among the 21 positions. There’s been an average of about three vacancies since June, said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger.

Dispatchers have to pass a battery of tests to get the job. The tests measure the ability to multi-task, type and comprehend information that they hear over the phone. About 50 percent of applicants pass the first test. Then there are more multi-tasking tests and a personality exam.

Partly because of stringent requirements, from a batch of 50 recent applicants, the town only hired three people, Henninger said.

To be a dispatcher, you have to be a good multi-tasker, Kirkland said. You also have to be able to deal with people who are “having the worst day of their life,” she added.

That means staying calm and speaking authoritatively, she said.

Then there’s the housing problem, something many employers in Vail are struggling with. As more jobs are created in Vail, worker housing is disappearing. The town is currently drafting rules that would allow 30 percent of the town’s workers to live in Vail in coming years.

Another factor is the stressful nature of the job. Plus, the hours can be irregular ” the communications center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Only with seniority do dispatchers get preferred shifts.

In response to the staffing shortages, the town of Vail now offers a $1,000 signing bonus for dispatchers. The starting pay is $18.72 an hour.

The center is funded by service charges on telephone bills as well as money from each of the 13 agencies it serves.

Dave Prater, an Eagle resident, has voiced his concerns about low manpower at dispatch to local officials.

“Our dispatch services are just way undermanned,” he said. “It’s time that there’s a spirited conversation in the community about what we should do about this.”

Perhaps the center should move downvalley, a location Prater said he thinks would be more attractive to employees, many of whom already come from Eagle, Gypsum or farther west. One dispatcher commutes from New Castle.

It also may be time to consider putting dispatch under the purview of Eagle County government rather than the town of Vail so it could be more centrally located, Prater said.

Dispatchers are currently averaging about eight hours of overtime a week to cover staffing shortages, said Joe Ribeiro, the communications center director, who has been on the job for less than a month.

The technology at the Vail center ” some $3 million of computers, phone lines and other technology ” is a big reason why relocation of the center is not feasible, Ribeiro said.

Ribeiro acknowledged that the current staffing levels “are not ideal,” so he is increasing emphasis on recruiting. He’s also considering paying a little extra for people who work night shifts. He may even ask for more money for salaries from the county board that administers the center, he said.

The dispatchers’ salaries are comparable to those of other dispatchers in the region, Henninger said. And dispatchers in neighboring counties are facing the same staffing problems, he said.

Despite the job vacancies, the level of service has not diminished, Henninger said. He regularly meets with heads of other public-safety agencies ” in part to discuss the quality of dispatch service, he said.

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.

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