They’re the first voice you hear in an emergency, but Summit County 911 dispatchers are struggling to keep up.
There’s a shortage of dispatchers and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office says they’re nearing their breaking point. At times, they’ve even had deputies filling in on shifts.
“I think it’s fair to say that dispatchers can be somewhat forgotten and unappreciated,” said Andrew Wright, a lieutenant with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
Right now, the department is down 30% of its staffing. They’re missing at least six of the normal 20-person team.
“That’s pretty substantial,” Wright said, “We’re nearing those critical levels. That could impact our services that we provide.”
Dispatchers are working 50 to 60 hour weeks to keep up with the staffing shortages. He said the shortage is due to not enough applicants and high turnover rates for the emotionally demanding job.
“Someone will pick up a ton of overtime and they get burnt out, and then the next group will pick up a ton of overtime,” said Sarah Sargent, a dispatcher.
She’s been working with Summit County for three years and said the job takes an emotional toll on her.
“Everything is out of your control except how you’re getting responders and keeping them safe,” she said.
She remembers specific calls that stick with her. One, she described, was a call from a woman stranded along the side of a road in a snow storm. The woman’s 12-year-old child and father were in the car with her.
“While she was on the phone with me, her dad stopped breathing, so he died while I was on the phone with her,” she said. “That one was hard, listening to her cry and the agony.”
While the job is taxing, Sargant said she’s grateful to be the voice of comfort on the other side of the phone.
“You go home. You mourn. But to be a dispatcher, you find a way to be OK at the end of the day,” she said.
You can find an application for a 911 dispatcher position here.