Jul. 17—Persistent staffing shortages at the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center, which have created job vacancy rates as high as 67 percent, have prompted officials to make big changes intended to keep employees in their jobs and to recruit new workers to fill critical positions.
The overtaxed 911 dispatch center got a boost Tuesday when the Santa Fe County Commission approved an amendment to its collective bargaining agreement with workers that restructures lower-level positions, raises salaries and removes restrictions on dispatchers' schedules, which now require them to work 12-hour shifts.
Dispatchers also are required to work extensive overtime hours to address shortages, a condition employees have said make it difficult to retain workers and those in training.
The county also is planning a round of rapid-hire events in the next several weeks to draw both experienced dispatchers and trainees.
"The amendment helps [the center] pay better and have more desirable scheduling," County Commissioner Hank Hughes said. "... We're just hoping that the combination of that will help us attract, and keep, some quality people in those positions."
The increased wages, which include raises of up to
26 percent for higher-level dispatchers, took effect Saturday.
The schedule change — allowing for dispatchers to work a combination of eight-, 10- and 12-hour shifts — will have to come later, said the center's interim director, Roberto Lujan.
"We can't change the current hours ... until we have enough staffing to do so," he said.
The center, overseen by a board with members from the city and county of Santa Fe and top public safety officials, has seen its job vacancy rate grow in the past year. It was at 49 percent in November, a shortage many former workers blamed in part on long hours and a hostile work environment. The board hired a new director in November who boosted morale and improved working conditions, according to several current and former workers who spoke with The New Mexican. Still, the job vacancy had grown to 63 percent in May, when Bernard "Buster" Brown stepped down as director after only six months on the job. It rose to 67 percent in late June.
Deputy County Manager Elias Bernardino said the vacancy rate is now at a 64.6 percent.
Lujan, who took over in June and has applied for the permanent director position, estimated about 80 percent to 90 percent of jobs would have to be filled for employees to begin working shorter shifts.
He insisted staff members continue to answer calls and respond to them in a timely manner, despite the shortage.
"It's crucial that we fill the [call center] with qualified staff," Lujan said. "I'm not downplaying it."
But, he added, workers who remain on staff "are ensuring that the community is getting services that they need."
Under the amended collective bargaining agreement, a position titled emergency communication specialist I will be split into two job levels — basic and advanced. Those at the basic level will answer calls that don't require medical assistance, while advanced workers will be able to handle more pressing calls that require a public safety response.
County Manager Greg Shaffer said the change might seem counterintuitive, but it will allow dispatchers to put more focus on vital calls. About 75 percent of 911 calls do not require a response by fire, police or medical personnel, he said.
"It frees up the dispatchers' time," Shaffer said. "What this structure allows to happen is somebody who is not a dispatcher can recognize ... 'I don't need to dispatch fire; I don't need to dispatch police. I can maybe help you navigate that situation.' "
In an effort to quickly fill jobs and enroll trainees, Shaffer said the county will hold a "rapid-hire day" starting at 8:15 a.m. every Thursday at 102 Grant Ave. from this week through at least the end of August.
"What that does is it condenses into one day things that could have, historically, been spread out over two or three days," Shaffer said.
The 911 dispatch center is a great workplace for young people with a sense of civic duty, he said. "While all folks are welcome to apply, we do want to highlight what a great opportunity it is for someone who is just starting out their career. You need your high school diploma and you need to be 18 — we'll take care of the rest."
The hiring events will include a brief orientation, a dispatch simulation test and an interview. If an applicant is selected to continue but has no prior experience, the person will undergo an extensive nine- to 12-month training period, Lujan said. However, after the person has been trained to answer 911 calls, the new hire can begin responding to calls and are counted toward the center's job occupancy rate.
The Regional Emergency Communications Center's board also must fill the director position. Shaffer said there is no time frame for when a permanent director will be selected, though he added Lujan is in a great position to vie for the role.
"We're very fortunate to have someone in Roberto who is capable and willing to step into the position on an interim basis," Shaffer said. "It's also a value to the board because then [board members] have an opportunity to say, 'It's not a leap of faith. We've seen the guy do the job.' "
Lujan worked for the center in various roles from 2006-14. He left to work at Los Alamos County Dispatch until March, when he returned to the Santa Fe County center as a manager.
While current and former employees have said they believe the county Human Resources Department's slow and laborious hiring practices have prevented the center from filling critical positions, Shaffer disputed that.
Lujan said he has received full support from the department.
"They've been very willing to work with us," he said, and the center's leaders have been "giving them our input on the process and how to expedite hiring. ... They're very open to that."
Shaffer said he believes the center's governance structure, under the county's joint powers agreement with the city and other entities, has created problems for directors.
He indicated a governing board subcommittee has been appointed to propose changes to the agreement.
"At least the two most recent directors were of the view that the [joint powers agreement] structure doesn't work," Shaffer said. "Without some fundamental changes, it will be challenging for the director to succeed."
City Manager John Blair said he has spoken with Shaffer about the center's governance structure, but the board is nowhere near making changes.
"I don't know that we have a resolution to that ... yet by any means," Blair said. "But definitely the goal, again, is to ensure that whatever the system is, it's the most effective for the people who live here [and] provides the most amount of public safety."