First responders seek resolution to Wash. dispatch center's 'emergency staffing situation'

Fire and police leaders met with dispatch center officials and questioned a recent notice that services would be reduced due to staffing

Kerri Sandaine
Lewiston Tribune, Idaho

PULLMAN, Wash. — Area fire and police officials paid a visit to Pullman on Wednesday to sound the alarm over an “emergency staffing situation” at Whitcom Regional Dispatch Center.

At an executive board meeting, leaders from Asotin County and the cities of Asotin and Clarkston told the center’s governing board they’re concerned about the shortage of dispatchers and how it could affect first responders and public safety.

Asotin County Fire Chief Noel Hardin and other regional public safety leaders recently met with Whitcom Regional Dispatch Center officials to address an
Asotin County Fire Chief Noel Hardin and other regional public safety leaders recently met with Whitcom Regional Dispatch Center officials to address an "emergency staffing situation" at the center. (Photo/Asotin County Fire District #1 Facebook)

In a recent email to the agencies, Executive Director Tara Murker said because of the staffing levels, Whitcom may reach a point where “we will be forced to reduce services.” She suggested sending records clerks or officers to help with the phones or “triage calls,” which triggered the pilgrimage to Pullman.

“This is the first time in 15 years we’ve had to come up here and address the board,” Asotin County Fire Chief Noel Hardin said. “We all have staffing levels that go up and down, and we plan for those dips. Why are we at an emergency level at this point? We’ve never been here before. Why are we seeing a big pool of applicants and so few hires?”

Asotin County Sheriff John Hilderbrand said Murker’s message prompted him to contact the Lewiston Police Department and start a discussion on an emergency backup plan for dispatch.

“The email sparked a concern for me about levels of service,” Hilderbrand told the board. “It shook my confidence about Whitcom’s future a little bit. In the five years I’ve been sheriff, I’ve never looked elsewhere, but I have to make sure the lights are on and my guys are safe.”

Ryan Baskett, interim fire chief at the Clarkston Fire Department, said the call for records people to help at Whitcom is a major concern.

“It’s a bit frustrating for us to see where we’re at today,” Baskett said. “Dispatchers are a critical piece when it comes to first responder safety. I encourage the board to take quick action and resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”

Asotin Police Chief Monte Renzelman said law enforcement and fire officials are dealing with life-and-death issues and need to be confident in the dispatch services provided by the regional center.

Whitcom is operating with six unfilled dispatcher positions. At full staff, the center has 22 people covering the round-the-clock shifts.

Murker, who has been at the helm of the center for more than a year, said it’s difficult to recruit and retain qualified people for the stressful job, which pays $3,295 to $4,730 a month.

“Dispatchers work very hard, and often, very long hours,” Murker said in an email to the Tribune. “For the work they do, the salaries are not where they should be. It is difficult to attract and retain dispatchers when other work is available with less work hours and higher initial pay. It is a high-stress position, and it is not for everyone.”

Murker said 30 people applied for the last job posting, but only six showed up for testing. Three passed and moved on in the process, which is similar to law enforcement agencies. Candidates must pass a background investigation, polygraph, psychological testing, vision and hearing tests and a drug screen.

“We now have four people in training, and they are not yet ready to work independently,” she said. “Training can take between five and six months. There is a lot to learn, and the job is very challenging, and we all learn at different paces. We want them to have every chance to be successful in their new careers.”

Murker said she’d like to hire an outside firm to develop a strategic plan and help review staffing levels and retention issues. The plan would likely cost around $50,000 and provide an objective, outside analysis of the entire operation, she said.

“We all want a contract that works well for everyone, and a strategic plan would help us get there,” Murker said.

Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers objected, saying it was the first time he’s heard of hiring an outside professional to come up with a strategic plan. The plans sound great in theory, but the vast majority contain the same information the officials sitting around the table could provide, Myers said.

After discussing the issue, the board gave Murker the green light to come back with more information on the proposal.


©2019 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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