John Scearcy, our Union's Secretary-Treasurer, has published an op-ed in today's Tacoma News Tribune describing the urgent problem of understaffing at South Sound 911. Dispatchers are routinely working 70-80 hours a week and are deeply concerned about the impact on public safety.

You can access the op-ed on the TNT website here or read the piece in its entirety below.

In a crisis, you depend on Pierce County 911 dispatchers. They deserve a break

By John Scearcy, Local 117 Secretary-Treasurer

In an emergency, seconds count. When a fire breaks out in your home or a loved one goes into cardiac arrest, you rely on the reassuring voice of a 911 telecommunicator to talk you through the crisis and route first responders to your aid. Relaying information swiftly and accurately can mean the difference between life and death.

With so much at stake, you’d think emergency call centers would make it a top priority to ensure lines are sufficiently staffed. But for South Sound 911, the agency that handles roughly 1 million calls annually for the residents of Pierce County, this is simply not the case.

In January 2022, the Tacoma News Tribune raised concerns about chronic understaffing at the agency. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse.

While many classifications suffer from vacancies, staffing levels for 911 law enforcement dispatchers has dropped from 88% in January 2021 to just 67% in June 2023, according to the agency.

Together with emergency call takers who interface with the public, dispatchers are often referred to as our first first responders. These workers gather critical details related to public emergencies and communicate them to police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs.

Dispatchers provide law enforcement with a suspect’s criminal records, vehicle registration, incident histories, and other relevant information. They monitor an officer’s status in an emergency and notify them about potential threats.

At South Sound 911, staffing shortages are pushing dispatchers to the brink of exhaustion and putting public safety responders and the communities they serve at risk.

To cover vacant shifts, excessive overtime is the norm. In statements collected by Teamsters 117, the workers’ union, many dispatchers report putting in 70-80 hours a week. Last summer, a South Sound 911 dispatcher ground out thirty-three days in a row of mostly 12-hour shifts.

Many dispatchers regularly forgo their rest and meal breaks because they are concerned stepping away will create a serious public safety risk. Workers are so exhausted they are fearful of passing along inaccurate information to law enforcement or falling asleep at their desks.

Insufficient staffing often requires dispatchers to handle multiple channels simultaneously. This can cause radio interference, leave an officer waiting for backup, or delay response times. When dispatch is forced to patch channels, as it is called, radio traffic can get overloaded. In such cases, an officer at a crime scene requesting priority information may have to be put on hold.

The grueling workload is also taking a toll on dispatchers’ personal lives. Workers report acute medical conditions, mental health issues, marital strife, sleep disruption, and complications in pregnancy all due to excessive overtime. One long-term employee says she hasn’t attended a family function in years. Many are actively seeking employment elsewhere.

Attempts by South Sound 911 to bring in new recruits or implement accelerated training programs have been largely unsuccessful. Workers simply do not want to promote into a position that so deeply disrupts their personal lives.

To retain current staff and accelerate hiring, the union is demanding dispatchers are guaranteed at least one day off per week and has proposed retention bonuses with no strings attached. So far, the agency has been unwilling to agree to these proposals.

South Sound 911 claims they want their employees to have a work-life balance. As a community, we owe it to these valuable public servants to ensure they have ample time off to spend with their families and their working conditions are humane. We also owe it to our first responders and the people they serve to have a safe, well-functioning 911 system.

When you pick up the phone to call 911, your life may depend on it.

John Scearcy is Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117. Teamsters 117 represents 17,000 working people across Washington State, including over 6,000 in public safety professions.