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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Kootenai County sheriff’s office reports critical labor shortage at 911 call center

July 27, 2022 Updated Wed., July 27, 2022 at 8:29 p.m.

Health care workers from Kootenai Health wave to members of Emergency Operations Center, Law Enforcement, Fire, Emergency Medical Services and Emergency Management offices as they conduct a thank you parade on April 29, 2020, in Coeur d’Alene for their allies in health care.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Health care workers from Kootenai Health wave to members of Emergency Operations Center, Law Enforcement, Fire, Emergency Medical Services and Emergency Management offices as they conduct a thank you parade on April 29, 2020, in Coeur d’Alene for their allies in health care. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Julien A. Luebbers The Spokesman-Review

Emergency dispatchers in Kootenai County may delay responses to nonemergency calls due to a worker shortage, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office announced this week.

The Kootenai County 911 Communications Center is at a critical staffing level of under 50%, the sheriff’s office said in a news release.

The 911 center, which is approved to staff 25 emergency communications officers or call-takers, currently employs only 10 communication officers and one call-taker. Emergency communications officers are call-takers with additional responsibilities and training, said Kootenai County Sheriff’s Lt. Ryan Higgins on Wednesday.

Higgins said emergency response likely won’t be affected by the shortage. However, the more than 500 nonemergency calls the center receives every day may see delayed responses. The center handles calls for all of Kootenai County except Post Falls.

“We’re focusing on 911 calls,” Higgins said.

Nonemergency callers will be able to leave voicemails, and “when time allows, the dispatchers will review the voicemails and enter calls for service,” according to a sheriff’s office report.

The 911 center received over 53,000 emergency calls during 2021, or almost 150 per day.

In order to compensate for the labor shortage, staff who typically work 40- to 48-hour weeks are now working up to 80, Higgins said. “They’re burned out and tired.”

The staff shortage has recently become “critical,” but difficulty hiring and maintaining a full staff is not new.

“The shortage has been on the horizon,” said Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios. The Board of County Commissioners approved a mid-year pay increase for emergency communications officers and are “strongly considering” further wage increases for fiscal year 2023, which starts in October.

“We’ve got employees that are substantially underpaid,” Fillios said.

The proposed wage increases for 2023 “are probably the single-largest increase” ever in sheriff’s department pay, he said.

Higgins said wages are the primary cause for the labor shortage, but he also cited the high cost of living.

“Trying to get them a competitive wage, or livable wage, so they can purchase a home here, is difficult,” he said.

Fillios said that the staff shortage “is not unique to Kootenai County.”

Heather Thompson, 911 operations manager for Spokane Regional Emergency Communications, acknowledged difficulty in the hiring process across the industry. Still, she said 78% of Spokane County 911’s communication officer positions are filled. The starting wage for a communications officer at Spokane Regional Emergency Communications is $29.44, according to their website.

The starting wage for an emergency communication officer at the Kootenai County call center is $20.80 an hour.

Higgins said that the commissioners are “on the right track” with wage increases.

“This was a problem that didn’t happen overnight,” Higgins said. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight.”

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