BILLINGS — You call them during your worst times, and they will always pick up, but the 911 dispatch center in Billings currently needs help itself.
“It’s not unusual to see three to 400 hours of overtime per week being offered out to try to meet minimum staffing,” Billings Emergency Communications Center Manager Derek Yeager said on Tuesday.
Businesses nationwide are no stranger to staffing shortages, but they are able to cut hours, close early and in some cases, permanently shut down. But that's not something the 911 call center can do.
“You can drive around town, see help wanted signs. You can see businesses closing up early. Obviously, we don’t have that luxury,” Yeager said.
The dispatch center in Billings is the busiest in the county, according to Yeager. And to be fully staffed, they need about 35 employees. The center is currently at around 20.
Those 20 employees are having to work 60 to 70-hour work weeks to make up for the shortage in staff.
“We certainly worry about fatigue; we worry about mental health. There’s no doubt about that,” said Yeager.
A dispatcher will make $18.62 an hour starting and will see a bump up to $19.58 an hour upon completing training. Wages are capped at $30.02 an hour.
Charlee Mack has been working at the call center as a 911 operator for 14 years and is no stranger to the long hours.
“I’ve been here since three a.m. this morning, and this will be a 12 for me today. But we’re working up to 16 hours a day on shifts,” Mack said.
Mack was in her seventh hour of work when MTN spoke with her. Working with people on their hardest days can take a toll on dispatchers' mental health.
“You want to be the calming voice on the other end. So, you kind of just have to forget about your problems and deal with it in the moment," said Mack.
The solution to understaffing seems simple - hiring more people. But it is not at simple as it sounds. During the training process, the center loses another employee for roughly a three-week time period.
“When we have a trainer training, we now have to fill another 40 hours a week on the floor, because they’re with somebody else," Mack said.
The dispatch center is in the process of training five new employees. Mack has been training Jade Cockroft for the last three weeks.
“You really have to be the right person to do it. I think you have to have a good mindset,” Cockroft said. She has worked at the center for a little over a month and was very nervous to start, but is enjoying the job now.
And it's a difficult job with long hours and unpredictable situations when you answer the phone. But the employees at the Billings center make sure to help each other so everyone can succeed.
“I feel proud to say that I do this job. I always have and that’s never gone away,” Mack said.