YBOR CITY — The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatchers barely have a free minute on duty.
Collectively, they answer more than 100,000 calls every month, working 12-hour shifts and watching five computer monitors each. Their fingers fly across their keyboards as they enter the caller’s data into the computer system and relay that information to the right place.
It’s a demanding and stressful job, said Brad Herron, director of operations for the sheriff’s communications bureau. It’s also an important one: Dispatchers take initial calls on everything from nonemergencies to crimes in progress to medical emergencies where a life can hang in the balance.
And right now, there aren’t enough of them.
The department has 24 open dispatcher positions, the most Herron said he’s seen at one time in his 28 years working in the dispatch center.
Nine trainees just finished their second week of the seven-month training period and eventually will help fill the open positions, Herron said. That still leaves 15 openings. Once those positions are filled, the bureau will create a second training academy that will run parallel with the one that already is underway, something the department has never done before.
“I’ve got to get some people in here,” Herron said.
The sheriff’s office isn’t the only agency with a shortage of 911 dispatchers. Departments in Miami Beach, Osceola County and across the country have reported feeling a similar crunch.
“It’s just part of doing business in this kind of environment,” Herron said.
Being a dispatcher requires minimum qualifications but maximum responsibility, he said. New dispatchers tend to either thrive in the position or learn quickly that it isn’t something they want to do, he said.
Each of the bureau’s 140 current dispatchers answer about 18,000 calls per year. Some are 911 emergencies and some aren’t, Herron said. If it is an emergency call, the dispatcher remains on the line with the caller until help arrives.
What the calls say can be difficult to hear.
Dispatchers sometimes listen firsthand as people are being assaulted or abused, hiding in their closets from someone who broke into their homes or panicking as they wait on medical help for a loved one. They have to try to keep that person calm while also dispatching a deputy or ambulance to the caller’s location, Herron said.
“That’s why we encourage people who are thinking about doing something like this to come in,” he said. “Let’s sit down and talk about it.”
About 170 people came to an open house at the communications bureau on July 8, and about 80 of them were interviewed, Herron said.
The job doesn’t pay much; trainees make $13.64 an hour and a full-time dispatcher makes $15.21 an hour. A bilingual dispatcher makes more, Herron said.
A dispatcher works either a day shift — 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — or a night shift — 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Because the department is understaffed, at least one person is working overtime every day, Herron said.
The long, busy shifts aren’t glamorous, said Evelyn Mahan, who has been a dispatcher for 13 years.
“But it’s rewarding if you like helping people,” she said.
Increasingly, dispatchers are using the job as a springboard to other law enforcement positions, Herron said, which also contributes to the high turnover rate in the dispatch center.
Shelby Humphreys, 24, has a degree in criminal justice and has been working as a digital dispatcher for almost two years.
“I thought this was a way to get in with a good agency,” she said about her planned future career in law enforcement.
All dispatchers go through the intensive training program, which includes six weeks in a classroom learning the computer programs and codes and about five months of practical experience taking nonemergency calls before working up to 911 calls and police dispatches, Herron said.
Each one is required to pass a state certification exam before they are promoted.
“There’s so much liability wrapped up with what you do here,” he said.
Firefighters, paramedics and police officers are the first responders to a fire or a crime, but 911 dispatchers are just as important, Herron said.
“When they leave at the end of the day, they have lent assistance to 75 or 100 people,” he said.
“That’s pretty rewarding.”
To learn more about the open dispatcher positions, call (813) 272-5625 or go to the communications bureau page on the sheriff’s website, www.hcso.tampa.fl.us.