911 dispatchers: One-third of Bloomington-Monroe County positions vacant, 9% pay bump urged

Bloomington-Monroe County central dispatch is down 11 dispatchers compared to the budgeted number for 2021. The proposed 2022 budget calls for a 9-percent pay increase to help with retention and recruitment.

At Tuesday morning’s meeting of Bloomington and Monroe County’s five-member central dispatch policy board, assistant fire chief Jayme Washel reacted to a statement by dispatch director Amy Hensley, that the center has 11 vacant dispatcher positions.

“I don’t know for sure, but 11 sounds like an awful lot of [dispatcher] positions to be down,” Washel said. He asked for confirmation: “Is that right?”

“That’s correct,” came Hensley’s reply.

Dispatchers are the staff who answer 911 emergency calls at the central dispatch facility, located on the second floor of the downtown transit center at 3rd and Walnut streets.

Bloomington’s salary ordinance for 2021 pegs the budgeted number of dispatchers at 29. That means central dispatch for Bloomington and Monroe County currently has more than one-third fewer dispatchers than the number called for in its budget for this year.

Those 11 vacancies look like they are confirmed in the biweekly payroll count of “telecommunicator” positions from Bloomington’s online financial system.

Since the second payroll of 2021, the number of dispatchers receiving paychecks has steadily dropped from 24—which already reflected five vacancies—down to 18.

Hensley told the board there is a hiring process currently underway, and she thinks six or seven dispatchers might be added under the current process. One candidate that Hensley hopes to pick up has 15 years of experience as a dispatcher, including a background with computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems.

Hensley’s proposed 2022 budget for the central dispatch center includes a strategy to address the challenge of recruiting and keeping 911 dispatchers: more money.  The proposed 2022 budget, which the board approved on Tuesday, calls for a 9-percent increase in dispatcher salaries.

The proposed central dispatch budget for 2022, which totals $4.26 million, is about $650,000 more than last year’s. Of the $650,000 increase, about $350,000 is needed to cover increased personnel costs.

Not all of the increased personnel cost can be chalked up to higher salaries. Some of it is due to an increase in the number of dispatchers.

The 29 dispatcher positions in the 2021 budget are 3.5 more than in 2020. And the 2022 proposed budget bumps the number by another three positions. In 2023 the number of dispatchers is supposed to increase again, by another three dispatchers. Those staffing increases follow the recommendation of a consultant hired to do an organizational assessment of central dispatch, along with the police and fire departments.

If the dispatch center is having trouble achieving its currently budgeted number of dispatchers, how can it expect to add another six positions? As Hensley described the situation, “We hired two full classes of dispatchers last year. And we lost about the same number that we brought in.”

Hensley thinks the increased pay will help with recruitment and retention. Hensley thinks there will be a “domino effect.” By increasing minimum staffing, central dispatch will be able to keep people on board longer and also be able to recruit better, she said.

At a meeting of the public safety local income tax (PS-LIT) committee, held on June 10, Hensley put the challenge in the context of dispatcher salaries in close-by counties. “Our base salary is just under 40 right now. And Morgan County this year put their base at 45.”

In human resources terms, telecommunicators are Grade 6 in the city of Bloomington’s salary system. The highest grade is 12. In the salary ordinance for 2021, the low end of the range for a Grade 6 position was set at $39,128.86. The high end was set at $62,605.97.

For last year (2020), the top end of an actual base salary (not including overtime pay) for a 911 dispatcher was about $57,000.

Hensley told dispatch policy board members on Tuesday that the 9-percent increase would put the central dispatch center on par with other cities and size or counties the same size as Bloomington and Monroe County.

At the PS-LIT committee meeting three weeks ago, Hensley answered a question from Bloomington city councilmember Sue Sgambelluri about the nature of the dispatcher hiring challenge: Is it a matter of finding candidates who will apply, or a matter of converting applicants into hires?

Hensley said, “We get a lot of candidates.” She continued, “But in our last hiring process, we had a lot of people that when we called them for interviews would not return our calls.”

Hensley also described how five candidates said they were very interested in a dispatcher position and set up interviews—but were no-shows for their interviews. “We couldn’t help but wonder if maybe some people were just checking the boxes for getting their unemployment checks,” Hensley said.

The PS-LIT committee will likely take a look at the 2022 central dispatch budget at its next meetings, set for July 15 and July 22. The central dispatch budget will show up on the PS-LIT committee’s agenda as the public safety answering point (PSAP) budget.