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Do The Right Thing

January 19, 2016
by Dan Voigt , Emmetsburg News

For almost eight months now, the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors has been approached by Palo Alto County Sheriff Lynn Schultes, asking for the authority to hire an additional full-time Dispatch Operator for the County's Communications Center.

But, the Supervisors have declined to grant that authority to hire a full-time employee, and have wondered why a part-time employee wouldn't work better. To go along with that thought, it was also suggested by board member that part-time operators be paid at a higher hourly rate of pay than full-time employees.

So what is the driving force in this ongoing issue?

That's easy. The cost of Insurance.

The Board's reluctance to pay a full-time employee's insurance premium, as they do for all other full-time employees, is the driving consideration in this issue.

That's an oversimplification of a very critical problem, one that the citizens of the county deserve to have solved immediately, if not sooner.

The Board has repeatedly tabled the matter, asked the sheriff to trim his budget, and also asked the sheriff to negotiate with other communities in the county to see if he could raise more money to assist with funding the Communications Center.

But for Palo Alto County Sheriff Lynn Schultes, the problem is much more pressing as a 9-1-1 Emergency Communications Center, the county Communications Center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But what happens when an operator wakes up with a fever, the flu, or has to be out of town for training, or just taking a vacation?

You need more part-timers.

But therein lies another part of the problem faced by the Sheriff - A lack of applicants for part-time work.

Being a public safety dispatcher is not an easy proposition. You can sit behind that desk for seven hours with nothing but routine radio traffic and phone calls, and then in the final 10 minutes of your shift, you can suddenly be deluged with hazardous weather, a multiple vehicle accident with injuries, a major fire, or even a call of a lost child. Each call received could be a matter of life or death. The ability to think logically, remain calm and focused is a major prerequisite for anyone considering the profession.

I don't make these statements lightly I sat at that desk in the Palo Alto County Communications Center in the 1970's and 1980's, as well as at the desk at the Storm Lake State Radio dispatch center for the Iowa Department of Public Safety in 1988-1989. I sat at the desk on numerous occasions when the phone would ring with a panicked voice on the other end of the line calling for an ambulance for an unresponsive child, an injured person in a car accident, or a young child who came home to an empty house and was scared, reaching out to a stranger for help and reassurance.

I've been on the other side of the desk to call for an ambulance in the wee hours of the morning after finding my father unresponsive on the floor in his bedroom.

I understand what Dispatchers do what their world is like and right now, the citizens of our county are being put at risk because these people, who put the needs of the many ahead of their own so often, are simply being worked to exhaustion because of short staffing.

It isn't the fault of the Sheriff it's due to the reluctance of the Supervisors to approve another full-time operator.

I can understand the desire to keep expenses in check at all levels, but a letter to the editor of this newspaper late last year has consistently been brought up in casual conversations. "Why do the supervisors get insurance coverage? They only meet at the courthouse once a week."

You have to admit, it's a valid question. True, the supervisors usually have just one formal meeting a week, but they may have extra meetings of various boards during a week as well. But there have been weeks where they have not met, as there have been no items on their agenda.

Perhaps it's time for a closer look at the reasoning. If saving money is the driving force in the Supervisors' thinking, perhaps reducing their own county insurance benefits could far outweigh the cost of covering one more full-time dispatch professional to help keep all the taxpayers safe.

The dispatcher's job is often overlooked by the public and more often than not, thankless - but it is so vital to the public's safety.

I for one am so thankful that those people are willing to answer that phone call for help I fear the day when that phone might just ring and ring and ring



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