New deal provides backup for 911 dispatchers in Pitkin County
A chronic dearth of 911 dispatchers in the area has prompted a tentative agreement between dispatch centers in Pitkin County and the town of Vail to share personnel during lean times.
Pitkin County commissioners preliminarily approved the agreement Wednesday, and it will go into effect upon second reading in about two weeks, said Bruce Romero, Pitkin County emergency dispatch director.
The agreement means that when one center is short, it can ask the other for volunteers who will come and fill in. Volunteers will be paid an overtime rate of $37 an hour.
While the current situation in Vail is relatively solid, Pitkin County is now down about six dispatchers, he said. The situation should improve by November or December when five new employees currently undergoing six months of training are scheduled to come on board, Romero said.
Until then, his staff must cope with the extra stress of covering all the shifts, he said. That means at least two people working 20 hours a day, and one person working four hours, he said, though that could soon change to three people working 20 hours a day and two working four hours.
On Thursday, for example, dispatchers handled between 150 and 160 calls, which was “a little high,” he said. That compares to about a 100 calls on a typical day just a year or two ago.
The Pitkin County Emergency Dispatch Center currently handles about 70,000 calls for service a year for area police and fire agencies, Romero said. In 1996, the dispatch center had one more staff member and handled about 38,000 calls a year, he said.
“They can’t do any more with the numbers we have,” he said. “I firmly believe we need to raise the staffing level.”
He said he’d like to be able to hire four to five more people and thinks that will likely happen over time. However, attracting qualified people is easier said than done.
“The number of applications we receive is very, very low,” Romero said, adding that he looks for people who can multi-task, handle high amounts of stress and have the ability to stay up all night on occasion.
The small employment pool makes it hard to find people with the right skills, he said. Pay starts at $21.38 an hour.
The number of calls is going up because the number of visitors to the Aspen area continues to rise, Romero said. Also adding to workload is the ever-escalating number of hikers and climbers who need to be rescued from nearby mountain peaks and trails, said Romero and Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan.
Greater access to information about nearby peaks — especially those 14,000 feet and above — is prompting people without the requisite experience and preparedness to attempt them, Ryan said.
“More information out there is bringing less able people,” Ryan said. “They think, ‘If others can do it, I can too.’ Then they get up there and they get hurt.”
This summer has seen reports of injured climbers or hikers sometimes several times a week. Ryan said he thinks the numbers are going up, “which concerns us.”
“But the reality is that people who want to climb mountains will climb mountains,” he said.
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