VSP Dispatcher Shortage May Disrupt Service

This file photo from 2015 shows a Vermont State Police dispatcher working in a Public Safety Answering Point. (Contributed Photo)

Critically low numbers of dispatchers at Vermont State Police Public Safety Answering Points may force a reduced level of support for agencies that rely on the communications service.

Vermont State Police Capt. Lance Burnham, Emergency Communications Commander, put agencies throughout the state on notice late last week that changes are likely if staffing within the PSAPs declines further.

“Within the past week, seven State Police dispatchers tested positive for COVID 19,” Capt. Burnham wrote to “Agency Heads” on Friday. “We also have others that have called in sick and are awaiting test results. At the same time, we are carrying a very high vacancy rate.”

He noted that the Williston PSAP has 13 vacancies and three dispatchers tested positive for COVID 19. In Westminster, there are eight vacancies and four dispatchers tested positive for COVID 19. Full staffing in the PSAPs would equate to 66 people; there are only 36 dispatchers currently.

“If our staffing numbers continue to decline, we will have no choice but to modify our dispatch operations,” stated Capt. Burnham.

He shared a plan that would be implemented if the staffing crisis worsens.

A move to “level 3” would mean routine dispatching services for agencies outside of the VSP would cease. At this level, PSAP dispatchers would only process life-threatening emergencies. Municipal and county law enforcement agencies would process their own calls for service, radio communications and incident documentation.

“These agencies will be limited to dispatch services for officer safety communication only,” Capt. Burnham notes.

As of Tuesday, the plan had not been imposed.

Capt. Burnham said the communications centers need reduced responsibilities because the normal workload cannot be shouldered by the depleted workforce. He said those who remain are working longer and making sacrifices to get the job done.

“(They) have altered their schedules and increased the overtime hours they have worked to fill the empty positions,” said Capt. Burnham. “The dispatchers have also rescheduled annual vacations and leave to fill vacancies.”

Changing to an emergency-only service for outside agencies would lighten the load.

“Non-emergent calls that come into dispatch centers eat up significant time,” said Capt. Burnham. “The goal is to reduce non-emergency call follow-up and administrative work for our dispatchers.”

He said dispatchers frequently take calls that involve no immediate public safety need. One example is someone who calls in a crash long after the vehicles have left the scene. In another instance, people will call to complain about a land dispute.

In the days of adequate staff, Capt. Burnham said a dispatcher would take the information even about something that isn’t an emergency, assign it a case number and communicate the case to an officer. He said it’s been a service “for a general public that wants an immediate response.”

“They call back and they continually call back, which eats up quite a bit of time,” said Capt. Burnham. “We can’t tie up our centers like that … it’s the day-to-day administrative work that we have to start shedding.”

Lyndonville Police Chief Jack Harris said such a loss of dispatching support would alter his department’s process of policing.

“We would have to become a reactive department only,” he said. “I hate to be a solely reactive department because that’s not what people are paying us for … I always tell my guys, ‘the bulk of your day, whenever possible, should be spent on the road.’”

The Lyndonville PD is down an officer, and with just him and his son, Officer Jason Harris, on the job, Chief Harris said a loss of dispatching for some of the “non-emergency” calls and functions would force them to stay in the department more to answer the phone for calls that don’t rise to a 911 emergency.

“We have no one else in the office to handle all the stuff that would be put back on us,” said Harris.

The Lyndonville Police chief has been contending with staffing shortages of his own. The department has been down to only two officers since July 15. He said there is a potential candidate for the third officer position, but the process of training and certification means about a year before the person is ready for full-time duty.

And this comes at a time of increased reliance on the department, he said. Last year brought a 10 percent increase in cases handled by the department, he said, and this year - compared to the first 10 days of last year - is already busier.

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