LANSING, MICH. (LANSING STATE JOURNAL) - In 2013, an Ingham County dispatcher worked 1,850 hours of overtime, the equivalent of about 154 extra 12-hour shifts.
His salary before overtime was $35,694. The 1,850 extra hours, about $58,918 in overtime pay, brought his earnings to $94,612.
It was the first of four consecutive years where the employee’s overtime topped 950 hours. In 2014, he worked 967 hours; in 2015, 955 hours; and, in 2016, he worked 1,121.
His overtime isn't an anomaly at the Ingham County 9-1-1 Central Dispatch Center. And some employees say the extra hours can be overwhelming.
In 2016, 37 of 76 dispatch employees worked more than 500 hours of overtime.
Since 2013, the county has spent an average of about $1 million annually on overtime costs at central dispatch, or about 25% of all payroll costs.
Officials say consistently high overtime hours are due to recruitment and retention challenges. The problems have plagued Ingham County 9-1-1 Central Dispatch, the third largest center in Michigan, since Lansing and East Lansing dispatch centers merged to create the entity in 2012.
“When we opened, we started down 14 bodies,” Ingham County 911 Director Lance Langdon said. “We have been working to fill those slots and it has been a struggle. It’s not a job just anyone can walk in and do.”
Langdon maintains the problem isn’t unique to Ingham County.
The job’s stress levels, its unconventional hours and the perception of the profession as a stepping stone to police and fire careers have in part contributed to fewer long-term applicants, Langdon said.
Other dispatch leaders in Michigan acknowledge those challenges, but stop short of calling Ingham County's staffing problems reflective of other centers.
Four years in, the problem is hardly new, but some believe it's reached critical mass.
“Some people are leaving because of the overtime,” said Tom Krug, executive director for the Capitol City Labor Program, Inc., which represents Ingham County dispatchers as well as some area police officers.
“We’ve had people tell us I love the job, but I just can’t do it anymore.”
A $1 million burden
Sherry Larner has worked as a dispatcher in Lansing for 18 years.
She worked at the Lansing dispatch center prior to the 2012 merger with East Lansing, and is the president of the dispatch center’s bargaining unit.
Prior to the creation of the countywide 911 center, dispatchers located at the East Lansing Police Department handled calls in East Lansing, Meridian Township and Michigan State University. Dispatchers located at the Lansing Police Department handled calls for the rest of the county.
Larner’s experienced her share of chaos and calm on the job, but short staffing in recent years has added an extra layer of stress.
She and her coworkers miss out on birthdays, holidays and rest. And, she said, it’s getting to be too much.
“It’s overwhelming and exhausting. We’re all extremely tired,” Larner said. “I think the majority of us would give up our overtime, but this position must be staffed.”
Ingham County 9-1-1 Central Dispatch Center has struggled to overcome a 20% staffing shortage for four years.
The department, which employs about 68 people at full staff, currently has 15 vacancies and another four employees who are in training.
Those vacancies drive overtime, especially when employees take vacation, family leave, or sick days. And the significant overtime required of employees in turn drives up the vacancies.
“We want our people to get some vacation, but every time someone goes on vacation that causes more overtime,” Krug said.
In 2016, vacation and sick time contributed to 39.3% of the total overtime at the department; regular overtime prompted by training, meetings and special events made up about 31.4%; and vacant positions constituted the remaining 29.3% of the total number.
Employees last year at the dispatch center worked a total of 31,195 hours of overtime.
Of the employees contributing to the overtime total, 37 worked more than 500 hours each. In 2013, 29 employees reached the 500-hour overtime benchmark; so did 20 in 2014 and 32 in 2015.
Of those 37 in 2016, 30 made more than $20,000 in overtime pay.
A $1 million allotment has been built into the dispatch center’sroughly $4 million in annual payroll costs since 2013. The dispatch center's total approved budget for 2017 is $8.1 million.
Ingham County Controller Tim Dolehanty suspects paying that $1 million in overtime is actually cheaper than paying salary and benefits for the additional workers needed to bring the department to full staff. But, he said, the overall cost to morale and work quality isn’t worth the cash savings.
“It’s probably less expensive to have all the overtime, but at what cost?” Dolehanty said. “That gets to the dynamic of the work place. Does it become a place where you want to work?”
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth is familiar with the pressures dispatchers are under as his deputies are often at the other end of the radio.
He said the dispatch center, which is separate from the sheriff department, does an “incredible job.” But he worries the excessive overtime hours could take their toll.
“I think you can only do that for so long until some significant mistakes are made,” Wriggelsworth said.
Langdon said limits are set on overtime for worker safety. After 16 hours on the job, employees must leave the dispatch center and can’t return for another seven and a half hours.
Employees usually volunteer for overtime but, if no one steps up, it’s mandated, he said. The person forced to work is the one who’s worked the least number of overtime hours and is available.
Look up overtime hours and pay for Ingham County 9-1-1 Central Dispatch employees:
The schedule, the stress, the shortage
From day to day, a dispatcher never knows what he or she is in for, Langdon said.
The dispatch center takes an average of 550,000 phone calls a year and dispatches about 280,000 calls for service.
Dispatchers might deliver a baby over the phone and an hour later dole out CPR instructions for treating cardiac arrest. They might coordinate several agencies responding to a multi-vehicle crash, and take dozens of calls during a weather event. They’re listening and relaying in the midst of panic, chaos and tragedy.
“Some of them get here and realize it’s not the job for them,” Langdon said. “You’re never talking to people on the best day of their lives. It’s usually one of their worst.”
The high stress of the job, combined with around-the-clock shifts that fall on birthdays, holidays and in all sorts of weather, requires a special type of person, Langdon said.
He said employees during the interview process undergo testing and multiple interviews in an attempt to find people with the right skill set.
“It’s finding the right person for the job that's the toughest part,” Langdon said. “It does take a unique skill set and unfortunately no one has found the perfect test.”
If the tests and interviews aren’t enough to narrow the applicant pool, background checks and training can trim it further.
Background checks similar to those required for police are performed for dispatch center applicants because of the sensitive information they handle.
Once an employee is hired, dispatcher training takes about 14 months. Call takers, a position added recently to help with staffing, require only four to five months. Call takers answer phone calls, but if public safety personnel need to be dispatched, transfer the call to a dispatcher.
Both call takers and dispatchers are paid during training, but don't count toward the center's minimum staffing levels until training is complete.
Despite the drawbacks, a dispatcher has the chance to make a real difference in people’s lives, Langdon said. And the pay and benefits aren’t bad.
Langdon said starting wage for a call taker is $17.17 an hour, about $35,713 annually, and workers receive a pension and health benefits. Dispatcher pay currently tops out at $25.29 an hour, about $52,603 annually.
In his 30 years working in public safety, Langdon said, he’s never witnessed a layoff at the dispatch center.
“You can stick around a long time,” he said. “It is a job you can retire from.”
Applications lag statewide
Langdon maintains the recruitment and retention issues his department is facing are not unique to the dispatch center.
“Even here locally the police departments and fire departments are having a hard time finding good applicants to come on board,” Langdon said.
Matt Groesser, emergency communications center manager for the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, agreed.
Last year, Groesser’s department took on dispatch responsibilities for the city of Wyoming, which led to a 20% increase in workload and staff. He said 15 months after the change, the center still is struggling to fill vacant positions.
“It takes a tremendous amount of time to get a trained dispatcher up to where they can do the role on their own,” Groesser said.
With pay similar to Ingham County’s and healthy pension benefits, Groesser is confident the dispatch center can work its way back to a full, 61-employee staff.
But, he said, the public’s perception of the profession must change from a short-term gig to a long-term career, where experience learned on the job is key.
"It’s a tremendous amount of information passing through these folks," Groesser said. "We put them in a place where they have access to a lot of good tools, but it’s almost overwhelming how much information is presented to these employees.”
Eaton County Central Dispatch is fully staffed, but it recently had to shed two dispatch positions to pay more toward unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities.
“Going into next year, that’s probably going to create more overtime for employees,” said Michael Armitage, director for Eaton County’s central dispatch.
He said hiring woes are widespread.
“It’s a very stressful and demanding job,” Armitage said. “And with the job market better now, that makes a challenge for recruitment.”
Others believe low staffing at dispatch centers is not a blanket issue, but one specific to certain centers.
“I don’t know how you can run a business and have that much overtime,” Krug said. “There are centers around the state that have hiring issues but I don’t think to the extent of Ingham.”
Jeff Troyer, chairman for the state 911 committee, acknowledged the job isn’t easy, but said retention issues aren’t pervasive.
“You’re always going to have a little bit of turnover in any public safety unit because of the job stress,” said Troyer, who also is executive director for Kalamazoo County Consolidated Dispatch Authority.
“The number of applicants for emergency telecommunicators across the state has gone down, but 911 centers are still finding quality people.”
Dolehanty agreed, but with a caveat.
"I can tell you from my experience in other counties we didn’t have this same problem," Dolehanty said. "But those dispatch centers were smaller and took far fewer calls.”
Solutions four years in the making
The recruitment of quality, long-term employees is a goal that’s been driving change at Ingham County central dispatch.
The dispatch center has increased its presence on social media and recruited at community events, job fairs, and Michigan Works. When a local Gander Mountain shut down recently, Langdon visited the site with information on careers in 9-1-1 dispatch.
“What we’re looking to do is try and get that message out to a broader audiences,” he said.
Langdon said the county is considering hiring a third party to help with recruiting, and is working on an employee recognition program to increase morale.
Commissioners on Tuesday approved the addition of a staff services position to the dispatch center to focus on staff training, development and employee concerns.
“It’s time to pull out all the stops,” Dolehanty said. “This has gone on long enough.”
Larner wants the changes to work, but believes it may require more engagement with the community.
“I think that we need to step out of the box as far as hiring,” Larner said. “The citizens of the community don’t necessarily understand what the 911 profession is.”
Krug said he’s hopeful, but not certain, the changes are enough.
“Will they ever be full? I don’t know,” he said. “But they need to get more people and they need to keep them there.”
How to Apply
People can apply to the Ingham County 9-1-1 Central Dispatch Center by calling 244-8098, or by following the prompts at the 911 website, 911.Ingham.org.
Minimal qualifications include a high school diploma, a typing speed of 35 words per minute and the ability to pass a background check.
The interview and hiring process includes a video-based test, board interview, background investigation and final interview.
© 2017, Lansing State Journal