This is 911, please hold…

Contrary to what ‘90s rap act Public Enemy might have said, 911 is no joke, and neither is the job of a 911 dispatcher. According to Butte County Sheriff Perry Reniff, the dispatch center that fields every call to the county’s 911 system is in imminent danger of being critically overloaded, as current dispatchers are feeling overworked, stressed out and underpaid.

Speaking to the Butte County Board of Supervisors, Reniff warned that without an all-out recruitment and retention drive, the dispatch center was in danger of losing half of its 13-member team, which already is not fully staffed.

“It’s a pressure cooker,” Reniff said about the stressful nature of the job. “I can’t remember a dispatcher who lasted 15 years,” which is how long the current supervisor has been at the job. That supervisor has asked for a voluntary demotion to a clerical position within the department, citing stress as the main factor.

Reniff, who campaigned for sheriff partly on a promise to fill vacant department positions and thereby reduce overtime expenses, recommended raising dispatchers’ pay by 10 percent and providing bonuses to enhance recruitment. Reniff said he had made progress in hiring new deputies and correctional officers—having filled 10 of 23 positions—but was having a hard time finding qualified dispatchers at a time when many of the current ones want to move on.

Currently, Butte County pays new dispatchers $2,000 to $2,500 per month and allows them to train on the job. While the only educational requirement is a high-school diploma, applicants are subjected to an extensive background check and must pass psychological and physical tests to ensure they can hold up under stress.

“The main thing is they have to be able to handle not just one or two tasks at a time but six or seven or 10 at once, and follow each one to the end,” Reniff said.

In a recent informal study, Reniff found that, while other counties employ as many as one dispatcher for every 4,676 residents, Butte currently has one dispatcher for every 18,700 residents. And while other counties pegged their average ratio of dispatchers to deputies at 1:5.5, Butte has only one dispatcher for every 10 deputies.

Reniff cited a need to address other problems at the dispatch center, including the high number of non-emergency calls the center has to deal with and problems with report-generating software. Also, regional law enforcement agencies are currently looking at the prospect of a county-wide warrant system that could save time for both dispatchers and cops in the field.