Many businesses on San Juan Island are struggling with being short-staffed, but the shortage of dispatchers makes for a dangerous situation.
Robin DeLazerda started her work as a dispatch officer on the island on Sept. 12, 2001 — the day after 9/11. She is currently working as a dispatch supervisor and also actively working as a dispatcher. When she sat in and observed dispatchers working, she knew that this was her calling, she said.
“I remember observing while only one dispatcher was on, there was an accident and I watched,” DeLazerda said. “What occurred behind the scenes amazed me.”
DeLazerda has a passion for helping others and explained she is happy that each “customer” is someone she can keep safe.
“I come to work every day knowing it will be a different challenge each and every day,” DeLazerda said, but being short-staffed has made these challenges much more difficult. According to DeLazerda, this issue has been ongoing for seven years.
She credits this to the difficulty in finding employees who are willing to live on the island.
“Island life is not for everyone, but most give it a good try,” DeLazerda said of the dispatchers involved in the high turnover.
San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs said that although this shortage is nationwide, it is extra difficult on the island. With the shortage of affordable housing, when Krebs has a new hire, he worries about where they are going to live.
“We can’t not have dispatch,” Krebs said, adding that in dangerous situations, “They act as a calm voice in the storm.”
Tom Eades, who has been a dispatcher on the island for three decades, said he has watched the call volume increase and the staff level decrease. “It’s feast or famine,” he said of the busy bursts of calls.
What makes this shortage issue even more difficult to bear, DeLazerda added, is how tight-knit the community is.
“When there is a loss that affects our community, we answer that telephone call and the chance that I know you or your family is highly likely,” DeLazerda said. “Each call is personal.”
Due to this closeness, the job can be emotionally draining. DeLazerda hopes to offer the community as much help as she can, which has been difficult when there aren’t enough dispatch officers available.
“When a community has a loss or devastating incident, we share that hurt in a way most people do not understand,” she said. “It’s comparable to answering a 9-1-1 call and seeing your father’s name pop up on the screen.”
To avoid unnecessary call volume, Eades suggests being careful with emergency call settings on cell phones. If a call is accidentally made, Eades recommends staying on the line and stating that you are safe.
To compensate for the lack of dispatchers, those who currently hold the position are constantly working around the clock. DeLazerda said she and her coworkers will make sacrifices, such as canceling plans or vacations, to keep the community safe.
The summer months are an especially busy time. Anthony Calandra, who was hired as a dispatcher this last October, said he has already seen a difference in calls since June. While tourists come for a tranquil getaway, tragedies still happen on the island.
“What we do is try to keep that tranquility,” Calandra said.
DeLazerda recalled the Fourth of July parade one year wherein someone was badly injured. She was working alone and the 9-1-1 lines were very busy. An off-duty dispatcher that was enjoying the parade with his family went to help. Thankfully, all of the 9-1-1 lines were reporting the same incident.
DeLazerda said bystanders should avoid calling in the same incident multiple times, but because she was the only one working, she said, “In this incident, the outcome could have been much different if any of those 9-1-1 hang-ups were anything but the same accident report.”
This problem not only impacts the dispatch department but the whole Sheriff’s office. Deputies are aware of the shortage, DeLazerda said, so they will come and help out when they can, however, this takes away from the deputies’ time spent on their own duties.
This problem has been ongoing, with the quick turnover of dispatchers being cyclical for the past seven years. Finding out how to get more dispatchers to stay on the island long-term is important for the safety of the island.
For more information, job requirements and to apply to be a dispatcher, visit https://www.sanjuanco.com/408/Employment.
While those coming onto the island may have to sacrifice some urban amenities, she thinks the bond to the community in her line of work is worth it.
“I think community service is a gift,” DeLazerda said. “Most people who choose to serve others will often sacrifice to do so.”