Susan Earle took a breath as she stepped up to the lectern at a Walworth County Board meeting in July.
She said it was her 60th birthday, and it was 26 days before her retirement and her last day as a dispatcher in the Walworth County Communications Center.
Her voice started to break with emotion. She said she didn’t know Sheriff Kurt Picknell would be in the room when she spoke during public comment.
Her final, emotional plea to the county government: Hire more dispatchers.
“It was with deep struggle to finally decide to retire,” Earle said through tears. “The communications division is a highly stressful position.
“I wanted to have the chance to tell you while I was still an employee—that this is something you need to do now before you lose more people.”
The center has four vacancies, which officials described as unusually high. But Earle thinks even what constitutes a full staff is not enough.
Sheriff’s Capt. Jamie Green, who oversees the center, and Undersheriff Kevin Williams downplayed Earle’s claims and said a study set to begin in early 2019 will reveal whether the center is understaffed.
“When Susan said that they needed more dispatchers and that up there, I don’t know that we can factually say that that is accurate or not,” Williams said earlier this month. “I think that is her personal opinion.
“As I sit here, it (the study) may say we may need more people. It may say we don’t need more people,” Williams continued. “I honestly don’t know, and that’s why we’re gonna go through the process.”
To be clear, Earle said, she holds no ill will toward the center or the sheriff’s office. She loved her job and said she retired because she was ready for retirement, not because the stress forced her out.
Still, she is equally firm in her belief that staffing increases are necessary—even when acknowledging budget constraints and how the problem is not exclusive to Walworth County or to Wisconsin.
“We need to increase our staffing before … you lose more (dispatchers),” Earle told The Gazette earlier this month. “Because it’s the stress level that just builds and builds and builds.
“And then suddenly it’s like, ‘You know what? This is not worth it.’”
‘Every day is different’
Earle said she was born, raised and still lives in the town of La Grange.
When Earle first started in 1985, she said she was paid $8 an hour and the insurance was “phenomenal.”
Now, the center has four open positions. One job description posted on the sheriff’s office Facebook page listed pay at $19.52 to $26.45 hourly.
“These employees are often faced with individuals in traumatic or crisis situations,” the county’s website states.
“Throughout traumatic or crisis situations, the dispatchers must maintain their focus on their dispatching duties while dealing with the individuals involved.”
The communications center’s six work stations—each set up with seven computer monitors—fill up a room on the second floor of the sheriff’s office in Elkhorn.
A supervisor is on each of the three shifts along with at least two other dispatchers. Second shift—3 to 11 p.m.—typically is the busiest shift, Green said. Although three is the minimum number of staffers on duty, a few more sometimes are added.
Dispatchers in 2017 received about 125,000 calls—21,884 of which were 911 calls, according to the sheriff’s office annual report. That number of 911 calls is down from 22,842 in 2016.
Green pointed out that several calls can come in for one major incident, such as a car crash involving several parties.
Dispatchers take calls from 13 law enforcement and 13 fire/rescue departments throughout the county, but they do not handle dispatch for Whitewater, Delavan and Lake Geneva.
Dispatchers go through training and extensive background checks that can take between six and eight weeks and training, Green said.
Dispatchers are trained in a public safety telecommunicator course through the Association of Public Communications and the emergency medical dispatch course. The two are a minimum of 16 weeks, according to the annual report.
But no matter what training a dispatcher receives, unpredictability ranging from the mundane to life-and-death matters is part of the job.
“Every day is different,” Green said. “You can answer a 911 call with someone not breathing, and then the next phone call could be someone inquiring about whether they need a permit to launch their boat.”
‘It’s hard to predict that’
When asked how everything is going in the dispatch center, Green said “busy, as usual.”
The 2019 study will look at staffing levels, call volume and workload, he said.
The study next year could be completed in time to reflect any requested changes in the 2020 county budget. Green said the 2019 budget, which has not yet been approved, contains no staffing changes for the center.
Williams pointed to a study during the 2000s that recommended staffing levels the communications center is now meeting. If those levels have changed, the new study will show that, he said.
Williams, who used to run the communications center before he became undersheriff, said a newly formed county group—the Emergency Communications Advisory Committee—will have a broader scope than a similar group—the 911 Governing Board—from years before.
The new committee will help standardize procedures, which Green said was one of his goals when he started in his position in 2016. Green is listed as one of the seven members from law enforcement, fire departments and emergency medical services to be appointed, according to county documents.
Although the sheriff’s office and the county will be examining the communications center, Williams said the sheriff’s administration is pleased with the work dispatchers are doing.
Green said Earle had not talked to him before she made her comments at the county meeting, and the plan for the 2019 study was made well before July.
Earle said she started noticing troubles with staffing about five or six years ago.
On top of the staffing changes, Earle suggested switching to 12-hour shifts. Years ago, the county had part-time dispatchers, which Earle suggested could come back to smooth out the schedule.
Green said staffing has been consistent since he started in the position. He said he does not believe others in the center share Earle’s concerns.
“As it relates to work … my interpretation is they all have a view that they are helping and doing well,” Green said. “But any given day because they are individuals and they are people, they have events outside of work that cause stress, too.
“It’s hard to predict that.”
‘A greatest fear’
Retired life is still busy for Earle, which is just how she likes it.
She still works part time at the Evergreen Country Club, where the craze of a Friday night fish fry rivals the buzzing dispatch center, she joked. She has more time to see her two kids. She is always looking for nonprofit or community involvement.
But if there was a way for her to go back to the dispatch center and work part-time to help her coworkers out, she said she would “walk through the door in a minute.”
“If a tornado were to blow through this county, I’d go in to work and say, ‘You don’t have to pay me. I’ll just sit here and answer the phone,’” Earle said. “That’s from my heart. That’s how much I love doing the job that I did.”
It takes a certain kind of person to work in a dispatch center—a “crazy one,” Earle joked. An emergency room nurse would make a good dispatcher, she said.
Back in July, Earle said the country is “volatile” against police officers. What scared her the most, she said while wrapping up her comments, was not hearing an officer call for help.
“That was always a greatest fear,” Earle said, adding she “never had to live that.”
She said for her 60th birthday she wanted the county to hire more communications officers.
She said thank you, stepped away from the lectern and walked by Sheriff Picknell, who gave her a hug.