COLUMBIA — At 8:12 p.m. on Wednesday, it’s quiet and cool as five operators sit in dim lighting. Country music plays in the background as computer keyboards click, calls ring in and paper rolls off dot-matrix printers with an occasional "ding."
The night starts slowly, but it's bad luck to say so in the Joint Communications Center for Boone County, which is housed in a building next to the Columbia Police Department.
"Quiet" and "slow" are words dispatch operators avoid, operator Kara Ulery said. “We’re really superstitious around here.”
But they'll take the calm, knowing that in seconds the atmosphere could change from serene to intense. When it gets busy, Interim Director Zim Schwartze said, the understaffing of Joint Communications becomes obvious. Police officers get put on standby while they await information, supervisors have to take calls instead of supervising and non-emergency callers are asked to call back later.
Schwartze took over for James McNabb who resigned in May after working as director since October 1999. The city is looking to fill the position by the end of the year at the latest.
Though Schwartze doesn't intend to remain in the position for too long, she said she hopes to improve both the atmosphere and capabilities of the dispatch center. She recently laid out a plan to both the Boone County Commission and Columbia City Council that she said merits immediate implementation.
She is asking for four more operators and a system support analyst to handle the increasing number of incoming calls.
In 2008, Joint Communications received a total of 304,435 calls, 17.3 percent of which were 911 calls and 78.7 percent were nonemergency or administrative calls. About 15 percent of nonemergency calls and 2.5 percent of 911 calls were put on hold because of the lack of available operators.
Schwartze also pointed out that cell phones have affected Joint Communications as well. While only 39 percent of calls in 2003 came from cell phones, that number has increased to about 60 percent.
Schwartze used a traffic crash on Interstate 70 as an example of why cell phones have increased call volume. "Whereas one person may have called it in before, now we are receiving 20 calls because everyone has a cell phone," she said.
According to the National Emergency Number Association, areas with the same population as Boone County averaged 4,484 incoming calls per operator a year. Boone County Joint Communications averaged 9,296 calls per operator, more than double the national average.
"We cannot continue to provide the quality and expected high level of service to our community with the current number of communication operators," Schwartze said.
On Wednesday, the crew is functioning close to bare minimum staffing, shift supervisor Scott Patterson said, with only six of the eight stations occupied by operators.
Although two unoccupied stations may seem inconsequential, for the operators on duty it means a lot. It’s two more people who could be answering phones, leaving Patterson to his supervision duties.
Luckily, tonight is no great challenge.
Cherie Price works Fire and EMT dispatching; Brian Stanley handles Main Law, dispatching officers to calls based on priority; and Amy Rothwell works Services, assisting officers on traffic stops as well as keeping tabs on the officers' whereabouts.
Price, who worked as an operator in Sedalia for five years, learned about a dispatch position from an ad in the newspaper.
“‘Can you answer the phone? You could be a 911 dispatcher,’” Price recalls of the ad. “But it is so much more than answering the phone,” she said, stopping to do just that. “911, what is the address of your emergency.”
Price has been with Boone County Joint Communications for two years, and though she admits it can be frustrating, she likes the pay and benefits.
Stanley has worked as an operator for a year-and-a-half. “I love this job,” he said, explaining that he has wanted to be in public safety since he was 3 years old. Firefighting was his dream.
For Stanley, knowing when and where to dispatch officers, as well as keeping track of each officer, is a challenge.
“It’s kind of like a game, trying to get rid of your calls with other calls coming in,” he said.
Rothwell is perhaps the busiest on this night.
She's been an operator for just over a year, but her first day on the job was also the worst day to work: July 4, 2008.
“It’s the one day you want to ask off,” she said, with a short laugh.
Rothwell has been in the room since 3 p.m. and is staying to work overtime, a situation that has become all too familiar for these operators.
In a meeting with the Boone County Commission, Schwartze said that the mandatory overtime adds up to around $80,000 a year. That amount could pay for at least two additional operators.
As the clock edges slowly past 11 p.m., new operators arrive, ready to take over for operators that can’t wait to leave.
In the background, the next shift supervisor, Stacie Swon, chats with Ulery. When a co-worker asks her about the best part of her vacation, Swon doesn't miss a beat: “Not being here.”
Ulery, too, can relate to wanting to be away from this room. With two kids at home, Ulery wishes she could have a different schedule, allowing her to plan things with her children. But one of the consequences of understaffing is irregular schedules for almost all operators and supervisors.
“I love my job, I always have,” she said. “I just want some days off.”
Meanwhile, Rothwell is getting hammered as officers continue to call in names and dates of the people involved in traffic stops.
“We really need two people (on Services) to be effective,” she said with exasperation, explaining that there’s a limit on the number of traffic stops that can take place at once. She is overwhelmed “since (the department has) everyone out on a frickin’ traffic stop,” she said.
Although the Columbia Police Department recently received Mobile Data Terminals, or MDTs, not all officers use them. That would take some of the load off the operators assigned to Services.
Instead, the officers call the operators for information about warrants, vehicles and other issues they come across.
Rothwell understands that there are times when officers can’t be in their car with the MDT, but when they can, she wishes they would use them.
Swon understands Rothwell’s annoyance but tells her that the new police chief recently sent a memo to all officers reminding them to use their MDTs.
Right now that information isn’t as useful for Rothwell, who struggles to help each officer.
“They're just going to have to wait their turn and be patient,” Swon said.