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Santa Fe’s 911 Center Slowly Fills Huge Staff Vacancies

Two years ago, vacancy rates at the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center climbed to more than 65 percent. Since then, the number of unfilled positions has declined, though gaps remain.

"Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center, is this an emergency?" Greg Archuleta Lynch said, taking a call on his headset.

"Take a couple of deep breaths for me," he told the caller, who'd broken a leg. "We have help on the way."

Around him Wednesday, five other 911 call-takers and dispatchers — each situated before an array of computer monitors — smoothly transitioned between talking to one another, answering phones and radioing law enforcement.

Two years ago, the atmosphere might have been more tense — in large part because there were far fewer 911 operators.

"It's gotten a lot, a lot better," 12-year veteran Chris Flores said between calls.

Staff shortages have long plagued the call center. In 2022, vacancy rates climbed over 65 percent. Since then, the number of unfilled positions has fallen by more than half, though 28 percent — or 13 of 46 positions — remained vacant as of January.

Center director Roberto Lujan said he expects the vacancy rate to improve, and with it, morale. Also helping matters is an upcoming move to a bigger facility that will further improve the work environment.

Santa Fe County's Public Safety Complex south of the city houses the 911 call center along with the sheriff's office and county Fire Department administration. In April, county leaders plan to move dispatchers into a new building designed specifically for their needs, about 100 yards north of the existing site.

The $5.7 million project has been a long time coming: County leaders identified a need for additional space for both the 911 call center and sheriff's office in 2014, Public Works Projects and Facilities Division Director Phillip "PJ" Montano said.

The county broke ground on the new building in May, and it is "substantially complete," Montano said. The facility will increase space for the 911 call center from 2,000 square feet to almost 5,000 square feet, including a larger break room with kitchen and stove, larger rooms for data servers and file storage, a dedicated room for training or meetings, private offices for administrative staff and a quiet room for dispatchers to decompress.

A subsequent project will expand the sheriff's office to encompass the former 911 call center.

Public Works Project Manager Rod Lambert described the difference between the existing call center and the new building as night and day.

"I think currently the space feels a little hectic," he said, adding it has been "retrofitted and retrofitted" to accommodate changing technology and staff. Most administrative staff members currently work in the same room as the six to eight dispatchers on shift.

"It's almost like, it makes you a little tense to be in there," Lambert said.

The new building incorporates softer colors and natural light from a long panel of windows. Its design is intended to make a stressful job easier — a change that is clearly needed, members of the call center's board of directors said during a January meeting.

Dispatchers stay on the job only 18 months on average, including their nine to 12 months of training, Lujan said at the meeting.

They must not only be able handle the pressures and emotional challenges associated with fielding calls from people in emergencies but must also become adept at multi-tasking, which some employees call the hardest part of the job.

"You're talking on the radio (to law enforcement) and talking on the phone at the same [time]," Flores said.

"There's times where there are four or five people going off in this ear," he continued, gesturing toward his headset. "It's a lot of information to take in all at once."

In 2023, the center received more than 369,000 calls, including an average of more than 10 emergency calls every hour. The call center responds to both emergency and non-emergency calls and dispatches Santa Fe city and county firefighters, Santa Fe police officers, Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office deputies, Edgewood police officers, San Miguel County firefighters, Village of Pecos firefighters and city, county and Edgewood animal control officers. It does not provide dispatch services for the city of Española or Rio Arriba County.

Long and irregular hours also make the job difficult, employees said.

Without overtime, dispatchers work 12-hour shifts and rotate working three or four consecutive days per week. Amid high staff shortages in early 2022, Flores took only one day off in a two-month period, he said. These days, mandatory overtime is "far rarer," he said.

From July through December 2023, administrators required mandatory overtime nine times, compared to 32 times for the same time frame in 2022, Lujan said in January.

He attributed the center's success in hiring and retaining more employees since 2022 to improved training, more transparent leadership and pay increases.

The union representing dispatchers negotiated a new pay scale with Santa Fe County in July 2023 that increased pay for all staff members between 10 percent to 17 percent, Lujan wrote in an email. The starting wage for a Level 1 specialist is now $22.46 an hour, while more experienced staff members earn between $23.61 to $35.72 per hour. Employees working night shifts also earn a 10 percent shift differential.

More people means not only improved morale but lower 911 call wait times, Lujan added.

In January 2022, employees answered about 82 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds. That increased to 88 percent in January 2023 and 92 percent early this year. The most recent numbers exceed national 911 association standards for answering 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds, Lujan said.

Aric Wheeler, a community member on the board of the call center, said in January he frequently has to call 911 for a client with mental illness and has appreciated "significant" improvement in call response times and dispatchers' professionalism.

Their work is less visible than other first responders, but "it is much appreciated," Wheeler said.

Despite its challenges, the job is inherently rewarding, several dispatchers said.

Hannah Davis, who formerly worked in retail, joined the office in October to do something she was more passionate about, she said.

"I felt like I was actually doing something more [here]," she said.

"It's very rewarding to be able to help people, as corny as it sounds," echoed Lujan. "You kind of have to have a calling for it."

(c)2024 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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