ST. LOUIS — When it comes to applying to become a 911 dispatcher in the City of St. Louis, the line is long.
Ninety-five deep as of June, according to the city’s Director of Personnel Richard Frank.
This at a time when St. Louis’s 911 call wait times are in the news with regularity these days – and not in a good way.
A dispatcher shortage is among the reasons Mayor Tishaura Jones gave reporters during a media tour of the dispatch center Thursday.
At the end of her prepared remarks, she pleaded with the public.
“Apply to work with us, if you know anyone who needs a good-paying job with great benefits, send them a link to our city’s website,” she said. “We need more 911 operators.”
Her Director of Public Safety, Dan Isom, echoed Jones’ call for applicants.
“Certainly personnel is a significant part of it, we have a number of calls come in and just additional staffing will allow us the capacity to take more calls coming in,” he said.
But it seems callers aren’t the only ones being put on hold at the dispatch center; applicants go through a multi-step hiring process.
To start, Frank’s department doesn’t just send anyone who applies to become a dispatcher to the police department for consideration. It certifies applicants to ensure they meet the city’s minimum requirements before passing them along.
That certification is good for 21 days.
The first round of applicants Frank’s department sent to the police department included 28 applicants at the beginning of June.
Police leaders hired five of them.
The department is in the process of finalizing the hiring of another six applicants.
So why is it taking so long to hire enough dispatchers who are so critically needed?
“You’ll have to ask Public Safety Director Isom about that,” Frank said.
Isom wasn't available for an interview Friday, but the mayor's office sent a statement: "City residents deserve an immediate and professional response when they call 9-1-1, and it is vital that we hire dispatchers who have the qualifications, skills, and background necessary to succeed in these demanding roles. Looking to put our 9-1-1 system on the right track after years of neglect, the Public Safety Division is focused on filling positions with individuals who meet key qualifications and who can provide the support and help residents need during moments of crisis.”
In the meantime, there are other issues that might be playing a role in some of the delays.
The city has three dispatching systems: Police, Fire and EMS.
Isom told reporters Thursday he hopes to combine all of those dispatching centers under one roof to reduce the “bottleneck” that happens when someone calls 911 and doesn’t need the police, but rather EMS or the fire department. Right now, all calls come into the police dispatch center and have to get transferred from there.
And right now, all three of those dispatching centers have different union rules – and qualifications.
Combining them will require the city to work out agreements with those unions.
And, to become a police dispatcher – which is where they are needed most – one must pass a psychological exam that takes about two weeks, according to the city’s personnel requirements.
“Very few fail it,” Frank said.
But there is a workaround.
Police dispatchers are also required to complete 80 hours of on-the-floor training so to speak, and have a probationary period in which they can be terminated if it doesn’t work out.
Why not do the psychological test during that training period?
Or, why do it at all? That 80 hours of on-the-job training could easily help determine whether someone is psychologically ready for the job.
And, if they’re not, there are plenty of people standing in line behind them vying for the job.
The mayor also told reporters the city also needs to improve its retention and recruitment efforts for dispatchers.
“The last administration adjusted starting salaries to $15 an hour and that’s still not enough,” she said. “We recently completed a salary survey and the city is often the employer of last resort and people have choices now.
“We have to look at pay if we’re going to retain or recruit new ones and to have them think of city employment as long-term career move, we have to take a serious look at being competitive.”
Frank said city dispatchers make closer to $20 an hour.
Trainees start with a salary of $38,168. After completing their 11-month training period, that salary goes up to $40,326, Frank said.
In neighboring St. Louis County, entry-level dispatchers make just $33 more a year than their counterparts in the city with a salary of $40,359.
And, in St. Charles County, entry-level dispatchers usually make $39,072 – but county leaders enacted an emergency 10% recruitment rate good until the end of this year, bumping the salary to $43,413.
Some of St. Louis' existing dispatchers also got a $9,000 pay raise within the past year, and, some supervisors got 5 to 10% raises, Frank said.
They’re likely to get more raises upon completion of the pay study, Frank said.
Meanwhile, the line of applicants could continue to grow.
As long as the police department keeps asking for applicants, personnel will continue to send along names.
Even if they continue to be put on hold.