Hawaiʻi County 911 fire dispatchers having own crisis with severe shortage of workers

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Hawai‘i Police Dispatch Center. (Photo courtesy: Hawai‘i Police Department)

On Thursday, in the windowless communication center at Hawai‘i police headquarters in Hilo — with the din of ringing phones, radio chatter and talking people — seven dispatchers answered emergency call after emergency call from around the island.

Working in a corner cubicle, usually occupied by the police dispatch supervisor, was the lone fire dispatcher of the shift. She was responsible for answering all medical and fire calls that came in islandwide.

Only one person working a shift is not how itʻs supposed to be. But with only five of the Hawaiʻi Fire Department’s 16 dispatch positions filled with working full-time employees, it is impossible to fill all 21 weekly 8-hour shifts with more than a lone dispatcher.

The fire department has two more full-time dispatchers, but one is on vacation and then set to retire and the other is on leave. Seven new dispatchers are in training for the job that Fire Chief Kazuo Todd concedes is “extremely stressful” and underpaid.

The crisis of dispatchers got so bad that two weeks ago, fire dispatch was temporarily moved into the police dispatch center. It was deemed too risky for a fire dispatcher to be working alone at the fire dispatch center, which is located in a tsunami zone behind the Central Fire Station in Hilo.


And with only five dispatchers attempting to do the work of 16, Todd said: “We’re risking literally burning them out.”

Hawaiʻi police is struggling with dispatcher shortages of its own, with 12 vacancies. There are currently 27 dispatchers and five supervisors, with seven dispatchers working at any given time. The police also have seven new recruits who are in three different phases of training: call-taker training, radio training and classroom.

Todd said he started a conversation last October with the state’s largest public-sector labor union, Hawaiʻi Government Employees Association, to find a way to avoid the shortage crisis they now are in.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes the actual crisis for people to move on things,” Todd said.

The decision to relocate the fire dispatchers was criticized by the union. A day after the move, the union sent a scathing letter to Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth expressing its concerns and the potential negative impact on public safety — “not to mention the undue burden this places on existing dispatchers and uniformed officers.”


According to the letter, “Members reported having to work under difficult circumstances, including a high turnover rate, working up to 13 days straight with no days off, 12-hour shifts with no lunch breaks, being unable to keep up with the volume of calls coming into the dispatch unit, and even being asked to wear their telephone headsets to the bathroom. They’ve watched colleague after colleague leave the department because working conditions are so poor.”

Todd said he felt the union’s letter was unfortunate, but he did not dispute its contents and was glad people were talking and coming together to find a solution.

Last week, union officials and the county “agreed on a path forward and will be sharing the details in the coming days,” said Hawai’i County spokesman Cyrus Johnasen.

Union officials said on Friday they are in ongoing, productive discussions with the county and hope to reach an agreement soon.

In the meantime, the emergency calls keep coming.


All 911 calls are taken by police dispatch, with fire and medical incidents routed to fire dispatch.

Year-to-date, Todd said 154,000 calls were handled by police dispatch, with 33,000 (21%) of them routed to fire. In April, police dispatch handled 16,328 calls to 911. Of that, 2,582 (16%) were sent to fire dispatch.

Jason O’Brien, supervising police communication officer with Hawai‘i Police Dispatch, said the communication center is always a bit chaotic. And it’s been made even more so with the addition of fire dispatch.

“For police, we get a call and we get off unless [we are] needed to stay on the phone. We stay on until an officer gets to the scene,” O’Brien said. “Fire has to stay on the line till the paramedics get there. They’re giving life-saving instructions on how to keep a person alive.”

O’Brien said police dispatchers aren’t trained to provide medical advice so they are limited to just gathering basic information and staying on the call until a fire dispatcher is available.

O’Brien said he recently took a medical call for a seizure because the fire dispatcher was dealing with another call. He said he got the basic information, put it into the computer system and patched the caller to the fire dispatcher. O’Brien added police dispatchers have always assisted in this way when needed.

“There are calls that get abandoned, mostly on our side because we answer all the calls first,” O’Brien said. “A lot of the cell phone calls are mis-dials or the phone automatically calls when the buttons are held down. We get hundreds of dropped calls that require us to call back and/or make contact with someone. Officers will make checks also.”

Combining the dispatch centers now is not an ideal situation. Police Chief Ben Mosckowicz said: “Our folks want to be able to use all the space we have, their folks don’t want to be cooped up in our place where we’re already a little bit crowded.”

Despite the shortage, Todd said 911 calls are being answered and handled.

“Are there hiccups? Are we maintaining the level of service we think the public deserves? Yeah, at the moment,” Todd said. “We just got to work really hard and get ourselves out of this temporary situation as soon as we can and move on.”

The potential for multiple calls coming in at the same time is always a risk, no matter the amount of staff working, Todd said. When there are several calls at once, they are put in a queue system and answered as the dispatcher is available.

By the time dispatchers have gotten the address and nature of the call, units are already on their way.

From his observation, Todd said call times range from 30 to 60 seconds.

“The biggest intervention would be a cardiac arrest to give CPR instructions over the phone,” the chief said. “That type of call takes the most time.”

Police dispatch section Lt. Robert Fujitake said the transition to working together has been going well.

“Our stance is we both work in public safety, we co-respond to a lot of calls together, and we couldn’t see just one of their dispatchers working alone in their dispatch center for numerous reasons,” Fujitake said. “One of them being the safety of the person.”

Todd is optimistic that the permanent joining of dispatch centers will lead to a more robust 911 system and long-term solutions, which ultimately will occur next April when they both move into the $33 million communications center in Hilo off Mohouli Street.

O’Brien said cross-training the fire and police dispatchers to handle all types of 911 calls could be advantageous. There is interest in this happening.

Starting wages for fire and police dispatchers is about $23 per hour. The only difference is fire dispatchers are required to take the 3-day Emergency Medical Dispatching course.

“There’s definitely practice time that comes into play and how to talk to people,” Todd said. “But relatively speaking, it’s not going out and getting an EMT licensure within the state of Hawaiʻi.”

Since he’s been fire chief, Todd created a fire captain position to deal solely with the issues and concerns of dispatch. Todd also brought the Department of Human Resources in to do a reclassification of the jobs. As a result, everyone was given a salary increase.

Despite the overhaul, the department lost two of its long-term employees and had two retirements.

Todd said he’s been trying to find a way to increase hiring and retention for the fire dispatch center for years. During his six years as auxiliary chief, prior to becoming chief, he said he got little to no traction from the state or the union about how to fairly compensate dispatchers for their evolving workload.

“We’re paying the same wages for a starting salary of Target,” Todd said. “But Target, you work during the day. You don’t have to come in at midnight and work until 8 a.m. You don’t have a rotating shift.”

The expectations for the job also have radically morphed. Going back 20 years ago, dispatchers were picking up phones, getting addresses and sending responders. Where it used to be a couple of screens, now dispatchers are looking at seven computer screens, four keyboards and computer mice. They’re basically running four different computer systems and multiple things going on at once.

Dispatchers are listening to people have the worst day of their life. “It’s an extremely stressful job,” Todd said.

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