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Dispatch staffing safety issue, responders say

A growing population and more emergency calls are overburdening a Pierce County dispatch center staffed with too few workers juggling the work of dispatcher and jailer, say local emergency personnel.

"It's starting to affect public safety," said Jeff Rixmann, director of ambulance services for River Falls. He said Pierce County should add emergency dispatchers even if that means cutting other types of services.

Sheriff's department administrators agree more dispatchers are needed. The department is asking the county board to increase the department's budget by $132,000 in 2009 for salaries and fringe benefits to add two jailer/dispatchers.

"All I know is we have a service to provide, and we need more help. We really do," Chief Deputy Neil Gulbranson told the county's finance committee in July. He said the department hasn't added a jailer/dispatcher in 14 years.

"We're hoping the county board is going to realize there are potential problems and the problems are becoming more severe," said Rixmann.

Other Pierce County communities have the same worries, he said. "We're just being the vocal ones."

"They do have a legitimate concern," said Gulbranson, who attended a meeting with a River Falls delegation.

"Those are two separate tough jobs," said Gulbranson of the jailer/dispatcher combination. In adjoining St. Croix County and most other counties, the emergency communications center is independent from the jail and has its own staff.

Gulbranson said it's hard to recruit workers who can do both jobs well.

In 2002, Pierce County dispatchers received 15,957 calls for service. Five years later, in 2007, they handled 30,097 calls.

The River Falls Ambulance Service's numbers are climbing too. Last year, the ambulance service was called out nearly 1,300 times, an average of over 3.5 calls a day.

While last year's number was a record high, by the end of July 2008, the service had gotten 100 more calls than by the end of July 2007, said Rixmann.

"The thing is with this business, you never know," he added.

Gulbranson said the popularity of cellular phones has also increased calls to the dispatch center.

In the past, a bad accident would generate one or two calls, he said, but now one accident can mean 20 calls.

"(Dispatchers) have to keep answering," Gulbranson said, in part because the callers could be reporting different incidents.

Twice in the last two years, River Falls ambulance workers were delayed in providing services to rural patients because it took a few minutes to get through to the dispatch center to send law enforcement backup, said Rixmann.

He said ambulance workers often find themselves in volatile situations and need assistance from police officers: "We do it more often than you would think."

When River Falls EMTs and paramedics are dispatched to an emergency call in the city, a River Falls police officer is sent too. But, said Rixmann, county deputies aren't automatically dispatched to every ambulance call in the country and EMTs must radio for assistance if they need it.

"They're multi-tasking too much," said Rixmann of the jailer/dispatchers. "They should be focusing more on dispatching."

Ambulance workers radio into the dispatch center six times for each call: when they reach the station, when they head out, when they reach the emergency location, when they leave, when they reach the hospital and when they leave.

Often, said Rixmann, they have to try more than once to check in with the dispatch center.

"We just keep calling over and over," said Rixmann, who said the jailer/dispatchers may not answer because they are dealing with other emergencies or handling other duties.

"They're doing the best they can with limited resources," he said.

"Our bookings have essentially doubled from 10 years ago," said Lt. Mike Knoll of the county jail workload.

When the county started 911 dispatching in the early 1990s, the sheriff insisted on four more staff, said Knoll. "The county gave us four more people, and we haven't added any more positions since then."

"There are only so many people. You can only do so many things at one time, and these people are masters of multi-tasking," said Knoll. "We need more hands."

The county currently has 14 jailer/dispatchers. The minimum staffing level is three, which may sound like enough but often isn't, said Knoll.

"Things happen in a jail setting, and you may need more than one person to deal with an inmate," he said, suggesting several fairly routine scenarios.

If, he said, two jailer/dispatchers are needed to deal with a medical problem or a jail disturbance, one person is left in the dispatch center to respond to emergency calls, answer other incoming calls and monitor doors.

Or if a male jailer is booking a prisoner and a female jailer is needed to attend to a female inmate, that again leaves one dispatcher in the center.

"Things have ramped up, and you've got one person in the center," said Knoll.

A sheriff's department request for more jailer/dispatchers says the number of programs the jail oversees--including home monitoring, drug court and urine testing--is increasing, and the number and type of prisoner has changed, resulting in more work for jailer/dispatchers.

"There are more prisoners on heavy medication, along with more prisoners with special needs being admitted to the jail," says the request. "The structure of the current jail housing makes it more difficult to deal with all those issues, creating even more challenges for jail staff."

At the same time, the jailer/dispatchers are getting more calls to dispatch emergency service workers.

The River Falls ambulance and fire departments serve the city, all of the Town of River Falls, 70 percent of the Town of Clifton in Pierce County, all of the Town of Kinnickinnic, 70 percent of the Town of Troy, half of Pleasant Valley and a small part of the Town of Warren in St. Croix County.

Pierce County dispatchers get all the emergency calls from the City of River Falls and the Towns of River Falls and Clifton. St. Croix County dispatches for the calls coming from its towns.

Rixmann said River Falls officials talked with administrators of the St. Croix Emergency Communications Center to see if they could take over dispatching for River Falls, but they said they didn't have the staff to do that.

"Long story short, they couldn't," said Rixmann.

Instead, he and other emergency service workers have stepped up their talks with Pierce County.

"For the last couple years, we've been telling Pierce County they need to increase their staff," said Rixmann. "We've been telling them that and they're still operating with the same staff (level), they've had for 15 years."