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Malheur County dispatch center understaffed

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The center, which covers all of the county’s emergency services, needs more staff but faces a tough sell as the economy remains robust and other employers may meet or exceed the salaries offered by the office of the sheriff.

Charlotte New works at the Dispatch Center in the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office in early October. New leaves his job for more stable hours and the sheriff’s office faces a shortage of employees at the center. (The Firm / PAT CALDWELL).

VALE – The day started off calmly for Malheur County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Charlotte New with routine radio traffic and no major incidents.

Until 3 p.m.

First, there was a report of an ongoing burglary. That a caller reported an assault. Soon after, an ambulance had to be dispatched for a medical emergency.

Then there was the car accident.

“There are times when it can feel overwhelming. It only takes one incident. But you’re doing your best, ”said New, 29.

Every 911 call in the county is routed through the Vale dispatch center where someone like New fills the multi-layered role of telephone operator, reporter, technician and, at times, medical lifeline.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said as of Sept. 14, the dispatch center responded to more than 57,000 service calls and nearly 10,000 calls to 911.

The dispatch center is inside the sheriff’s office, a large, dimly lit room lined with desks against a wall of windows. The office is guarded by computers which connect the dispatchers to a state database. The windows overlook a corridor that leads deeper into the establishment to the prison. A television – its volume turned down – on a wall projects colorful images in the center.

The vibe is low-key, routine, as an occasional call goes through the radio waves as a police officer somewhere in the county.

While work seemed like a routine one day last week, the pace can change in seconds. Some days the radio traffic turns into one long burn of voices and emergencies, each of the highest priority.

New’s time as a dispatcher, however, is short. She will be leaving the sheriff’s office for another job, and her absence will hit a center that is already understaffed.

Ideally, the dispatch center has a staff of 11 people. Now, however, he has seven people on his roster and when New leaves there will only be six Dispatchers left.

The low staff level creates new challenges for the dispatch center, managed by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, as it focuses on its core mission but also has to juggle a series of competing priorities on a daily basis.

Deputy Sheriff Travis Johnson said the job of a dispatcher is not easy. Hours are long with a 10 hour shift, and stress levels can spike in seconds. Lack of help sometimes forced other sheriff’s office workers to replace.

Johnson himself has stepped up his efforts when there are staff shortages, as has Rich Harriman, the county’s director of emergency services.

Johnson said the staff shortage is the result of a combination of factors, including retirements.

Still, he said the sheriff’s office is also faced with a robust economy and other employers who can just as easily pay with more stable hours.

“This job, you have to work nights, rotating shifts, vacations. There are a lot of opportunities out there right now. There are difficulties on their side with family and personal life and when there is an easy way out with high paying jobs it kind of becomes a given, ”Johnson said.

Johnson said the sheriff’s office is launching an entry-level dispatcher at $ 18 an hour. That salary, he said, just holds the line in terms of competitiveness.

“Some places pay big salaries and it gets more and more competitive, especially when you have the shift work that we have,” he said.

With just six employees, the hours are tough, Johnson said.

“The biggest problem is if you get sick or something like that it’s hard to plan,” Johnson said.

Fewer dispatchers means the workload increases, Johnson said.

“When we’re full we like having three during the day because the afternoons are our busiest time and at least two on other shifts,” Johnson said.

Now, however, there are two people scheduled for the day shift and one person for the night shift.

New, from England, said she enjoys her job as a dispatcher.

“If I could find a way to keep this job, I would,” New said. She has been working as a dispatcher since 2018.

New, however, said she wanted to spend more time with her children – all under the age of 9 – and have more stable schedules.

“It was the hardest decision to leave, but I need a fixed schedule,” New said.

New said she will miss the people in the sheriff’s office and first responders with whom she comes in daily contact.

“I feel like they’re like my family. You get used to their voice and the way they do things, ”she said.

Johnson said the sheriff’s office was working to fill empty seats in the center. He said three people are now in the background checks for dispatch jobs and the sheriff’s office has received nine more applications.

The hiring process isn’t just about hiring someone to sit in a seat and answer the phone. Each individual needs to be trained, Johnson said, and that is in addition to the initial time commitment for the sheriff’s office.

“We want to get back to staffing as quickly as possible, but we can only train a limited number of people at a time,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he didn’t think the understaffing had an impact on public safety, but that fewer people affected overall efficiency.

“We always focus on major crime, but there are just times when they are busy and we want to make sure we take 911 calls and if there are that many people I can’t stop someone.” one for an expired tag on his car or for not using their turn signal, ”Johnson said.

Wolfe said if anyone is interested in a dispatch job to call his office and talk to him, Johnson or Harriman.

Tip for the news? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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