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St. Louis needs 911 dispatchers. Here's why it's having trouble hiring them.

Personnel Division has sent 95 applicants to police since June, only 6 have been hired.

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis’ Personnel Department has sent 95 applicants to the understaffed and overworked police dispatch center since June – but only six have been hired.

What's the hold up? 

Police and city leaders say problems with those applicants, and the personnel process, are making it hard to hire people. And that is part of what's keeping callers on hold for far longer than industry standards, according to Lt. Adam Koeln, commander of the police department's Communications Division.

“Many of those names that we had gotten from personnel were no longer interested in the position or failed to respond or had actually submitted applications in the early part of 2020,” Koeln said.

Koeln said duplicate names and dated applications also cut the pool of applicants he would hire to about 17 – only six of which have so far walked in the door.

“We submit our recommendations to the Department of Personnel, then it’s a waiting game until they get in the door,” Koeln said.

Personnel Director Richard Frank declined to comment for this story.

Worker shortage

The city's dispatch center is one of many city departments struggling with vacancies. In all, there are 1,020 vacancies across the city’s departments, according to the Division of Personnel.

That’s about 16% of the city’s total workforce. And it's hitting at a time when the nation is struggling with pandemic-related worker shortages.

Alderwoman Shaheem Clark Hubbard says the city needs an efficient application process for dispatchers because of the nation's pandemic-related worker shortage.

She said she’s doing all she can to encourage people to apply especially for dispatching positions. 

“I'm pushing every day,” she said. “I ride around literally with applications in my car.”

She spent a recent afternoon in the mayor's office advocating for several people who were applying for jobs with the city, but have grown discouraged by long wait times in the application process.

“I think there might be some better practices that can be used in the follow-up because if you tell people why they didn't get the position, then maybe they can reapply,” she said. “It might just have been a mishap on the application or something like that.”

Clark Hubbard said she applied to become a dispatcher herself about five years ago, only to receive a rejection letter in the mail without any explanation or follow-up from the Personnel Division.

“I wanted to do something different,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of some of the change that was happening. I did send an email asking why, but I never got a response on that e-mail.”

The Personnel Division's practices have changed since then. It now includes a number to the Personnel Division where analysts can explain reasons for rejections on rejection letters as well as a link to SLATE, the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment.

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Dispatcher shortage

Shortages among dispatchers have been long in the making, Koeln said.

The St. Louis Police Department should have 84 dispatchers, he said.

But it only has 52 – with an additional six in training.

Koeln broke down the 95 names he’s received from the Personnel Division since June:

  • 75 applicants remained after duplicate names were removed.
  • 45 of the 75 applicants said they were not interested in the position, no longer available for the position or completely failed to respond to all attempts to get them to come in for an interview
  • 25 candidates were still interested in the position
  • 17 of the 25 candidates were recommended to be hired
  • 6 have been hired and remain in training

“I think our biggest issue is that we need more current applicants to put in for the job and to retain those that we already have,” Koeln said.

The hiring problem means more people are on hold for longer than national industry standards, which say 90% of calls should be answered within 15 seconds and 95% of calls should be answered within 20 seconds.

The I-Team is waiting on updated numbers from the St. Louis Police Department to find out just how far below the standards the city falls.

A department spokeswoman said the most recent numbers show 64% of calls were answered in less than 10 seconds during the months of February through May.

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Improvement plans?

Pay is part of the retention issue.

City dispatchers make about $20 an hour. Trainees start with a salary of $38,168. After completing an 11-month training period, that salary goes up to $40,326.

It’s comparable to neighboring jurisdictions. In St. Louis County, entry-level dispatchers make just $33 more a year than their counterparts in the city with a salary of $40,359.

In St. Charles County, entry-level dispatchers usually make $39,072 – but county leaders there 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.

The raises created a problem known as salary compression, Koeln said.

“Our current employees did not get a pay raise,” he said. “So that actually put the new hires at right around the same level as someone that had about 10 years of experience. And I think that obviously created some animosity with those that had been here for a while. And we lost a few people because of that.”

Most dispatch employees leave after five to 10 years, according to the Division of Personnel.

A pay study is currently underway that could lead to raises for existing employees – but the timing is unclear.

There are other efforts in the works to reduce the number of times callers are put on hold.

Public Safety Director Dan Isom recently discussed a plan to merge the city’s three dispatching centers – EMS, Fire Department and Police Department – under one roof by sometime in October.

But each communications center abides by different union rules and the salaries for each of the categories of dispatchers vary widely.

In the short-term, Koeln said he believes some automated functions for both the emergency and non-emergency lines will help take the load off some dispatchers.

Starting as soon as tomorrow, if no one is available to answer a call, an automated system will prompt callers to select which of the city’s three emergency service centers they need.

And by the end of the year, non-emergency callers will hear a Google-based virtual assistant help direct their calls.

Until then, 911 dispatchers will have to continue to answer all of those calls.

“We are doing everything we can to try to minimize the wait time and get 911 and the entire service center up to the status that we would like to see to serve the citizens,” Koeln said.

    

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