The job of answering 911 calls and sending help can be the difference between life and death.
“It's pretty hard to be on a phone and someone says, 'I'm going to kill myself,' and they casually do while you're on the phone,” said Kimberly Ellis, a Dallas County Sheriff’s Department communications supervisor.
But it can be even tougher when you don't have enough people to do the job and the pay’s too low.
“We are critically understaffed,” Ellis said. “It’s been quite a while since we had full staffing.”
Sheriff Lupe Valdez recently ordered an evaluation of her dispatch center after a meltdown at the Dallas Police Department's 911 center, where hundreds of callers were unable to get through to an operator.
Six-month-old Brandon Alex died after his babysitter was repeatedly put on hold.
“Any time you hear about a problem somewhere else… you immediately go to your folks in that area and say, 'Can that happen here?'” Valdez said.
The sheriff is confident that what happened with DPD won’t happen in her call center because the call volume is significantly less and their equipment is different.
That doesn't mean there aren't problems, though.
Fourteen of her 25 dispatch positions are currently vacant. Five of the current dispatchers are still in training.
So far, the call center's keeping up -- answering 98 percent of its calls within 10 seconds and beating the industry standard of 90 percent. The center’s handled about 26,000 calls to date.
Valdez allowed WFAA to tour the call center and speak with staff.
Valdez's department handles 911 calls for the unincorporated portions of Dallas County and Sunnyvale, as well as the county’s highways.
The staffing shortage means that dispatchers handle both 911 calls and dispatching duties. It’s been that way for at least three years.
“In a perfect environment we would have someone responsible for call taking and someone that’s responsible for dispatching,” she said. “We are constantly having to think about how we are going to prioritize the activities that are going on. If I’m on a 911 call and a deputy is calling and they’re having an emergency, it’s a struggle to kind of say, 'Hey, which one of these do I actually need to react to first?'”
Overtime is routine. She says she typically works between 10 and 15 extra hours a week.
“This past weekend, I did a 19-hour day on my day off,” Ellis said.
A survey also revealed her dispatchers were second from the bottom of 10 area cities they surveyed. Only Coppell paid less. Dallas County dispatchers start at $16.55 an hour, or about $34,000 a year.
“If a person is working as a dispatcher, they’re going to go the higher paying [department],” Valdez said.
Ellis agrees that pay is an issue.
“That's the honest thing about it,” Ellis said. “We don't get compensated for the actual work that we do.”
Valdez said she's confident that the commissioners will find a way to raise the pay of her dispatchers.
“I have no doubt that the commissioners will do what they need to do,” she said. “They have so far.”
Ellis has worked in the communications center for 11 years.
“We have a great camaraderie,” she said. “If somebody appears to be a little bit overwhelmed, the next person will kick in. We manage to stay on top of what we need to do.”
She says one of the toughest calls she’s ever handled was when a woman called and said her husband was going to kill himself, and then he did while she was on the phone with them.
“You have to keep going and you have to keep doing what you’ve been trained to do,” she said. “The best thing about this job is that it changes every day. Nothing’s the same. It is rewarding. Just hard sometimes.”
The Dallas Sheriff’s Department currently pays dispatcher clerk-9s $16.55 to a maximum amount of $24.96. Communications supervisors start at $18.44 to a maximum amount of $28.78.
Here's the starting rate of pay for area dispatchers:
Rockwall: $18.75 - $24.98
Frisco: $18.78 - $23.00
Carrollton: $16.32 - $22.84
Coppell: $20.94 - $29.31
Here's the starting rate of pay for area communications supervisors:
Addison: $18.23 - $27.35
Balch Springs: $17.37
Carrollton: $18.68 - $26.15
Coppell: $20.94 - $29.31