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By Julien A. Luebbers

The Spokesperson’s Review

Kootenai County emergency dispatchers may delay responses to non-emergency 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 below 50%, the sheriff’s office said in a news release.

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

Higgins said the emergency response was unlikely to be affected by the shortage. However, the more than 500 non-emergency calls the center receives each day may see delayed responses. The center handles calls for all of Kootenai County except Post Falls.

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

Non-emergency callers will be able to leave voicemails and “when time permits, dispatchers will review voicemails and enter service calls,” according to a report from the sheriff’s office.

The 911 center received more than 53,000 emergency calls in 2021, or nearly 150 per day.

To make up for the labor shortage, staff who typically work 40 to 48 hours a week are now working up to 80 hours, Higgins said. “They are exhausted and tired.”

Staff shortages have recently become “critical”, but the difficulty in recruiting and maintaining a full staff is not new.

“Shortage is looming,” Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios said. The County Board of Commissioners approved a mid-year pay increase for emergency communications officers and is “strongly considering” further pay increases for fiscal year 2023, which begins in October.

“We have employees who are significantly underpaid,” Fillios said.

The proposed salary increases for 2023 “are likely the largest increase” ever in Sheriff’s Department salaries, he said.

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

“Trying to get them a competitive wage, or a living wage, so they can buy a house here, is tough,” he said.

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

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

The starting salary for a Kootenai County Call Center Emergency Communications Officer is $20.80 per hour.

Higgins said the commissioners are “on track” with salary increases.

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