ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley will never doubt a rescue crew that says “seconds count.”
“They make all the difference,” said O’Malley, whose husband had a serious medical condition some years back that required a call to 911.
She recalled the medical crew’s response: “If they hadn’t gotten to him on time, they said it would have been fatal.”
It’s part of the reason why she’s paying attention to the situation at the Bernalillo County’s Emergency Communications Center – the ECC.
“We’re down quite a few personnel,” she said.
In fact, the ECC has a dozen vacancies for call handlers. With potentially two more on the way, nearly a third of the positions needed to fully staff the 911 call center are vacant.
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Dispatchers have been running ragged.
Over the past few months, many have had to work double shifts, sometimes multiple times a week. Some of them have had to work six day weeks to make sure no emergency call goes unanswered.
Under normal conditions, where eight-hour shifts are filled with frantic phone calls for help, there’s a high potential for burnout. Under such a severe staffing crunch, firefighters’ union vice president Robert Sanchez says its dangerous.
“We all know there’s a problem. And it needs to be fixed. And it’s been a problem for a long time,” Sanchez said.
County records show 33 dispatchers to cover 24 shifts each week. Each shift requires several dispatchers.
Sanchez said emergency crews count on the dispatchers handling calls to be alert, but there’s really no way to know “…what the stress level is like, how tired they are and how alert are they when our firefighters need them to dispatch our calls or listen for important information that’s coming over the radio.”
A county spokesman said there are five interviews for vacant positions this week. More candidates will be tested next week as the county looks to staff-up fast.
Bernalillo County Manager Tom Zdunek told KRQE News 13 the pre-hire tests are an attempt to find candidates who are less likely to burn out. Still, Zdunek said the safest plan is to temporarily over-staff the ECC until the number of dispatchers stabilizes.