Dispatch Dilemmas: Ashland County struggles to find workers

Law enforcement agencies across the nation are seeing staffing shortages, including dispatchers, and the department in Ashland is no different.
Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 7:24 PM CDT
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ASHLAND, WI. (Northern News Now) - Law enforcement agencies across the nation are seeing staffing shortages, including dispatchers, and the department in Ashland is no different.

“24/7, 365, every hour of every minute of everyday, there’s someone here waiting for that phone call,” Ashland County Dispatch Supervisor Mark Hill said.

Hill currently oversees six full-time dispatchers, however, Ashland County Dispatch Center normally has seven full-time workers.

“For the four years I’ve been in the career, I don’t remember when there was a time here and in other agencies where it’s been full staff and not have a vacancy,” Hill said.

According to the Police Executive Research Forum, 78 percent of police organizations across the nation indicated they had a hard time filling positions in 2022.

Ashland County Sheriff Brian Zupke said he thinks the job isn’t as attractive anymore. He says low pay and stressful situations make if difficult to find workers.

Ashland County had four total dispatchers last year, which is half of what they need to respond to the demand of calls.

“We had a year where it was kind of, what we would believe it to be, a crisis,” Zupke said. “We didn’t know if we were going to get applicants at the time.”

While his staff is now up to six full-time dispatchers, Zupke said the job is typically a revolving door and finding applicants is difficult. Current dispatchers are left filling the void.

“My dispatchers are 84 hours in a pay period for a normal two weeks and if there’s overtime, I’ve seen anywhere up to 140, even 150 hours in two weeks that pay period,” Hill said.

Zupke said one solution to the staffing shortage is combining Ashland County’s Dispatch Center with Bayfield County’s Dispatch Center.

“Combined both places, double the employees, so people can take off and get away from here and spend time with their family and friends,” Zupke said.

The combination will also help the counties receive more funding and support from the Wisconsin Capitol.

Wisconsin State Senator Romaine Quinn, a Republican who represents both Ashland and Bayfield County in the state legislature, said the funding is necessary.

“If Bayfield and Ashland Counties come together to create a potential joint dispatch, there could be money from the state to help fund that,” Quinn said.

Quinn said state funding could also help raise the salaries for dispatchers, in turn, attract more applicants. Zupke said the current pay for dispatchers is around $21 an hour after training is completed, but the Sheriff hopes to increase wages to $25 an hour to be competitive.

“We need to keep working to attract new talent and to attract someone, you have to pay them a wage that’s attractive, so giving Ashland County and Bayfield County the resources they need to hire these people, is important,” Quinn said.

A solution Hill agrees with.

“You can go work at Walmart or Kwik Trip for $18, $20 an hour with no stress and no worry,” Hill said.

Zupke and Hill are both hopeful that funding will come in because the job requires them to stay open.

“It’s crucial that we stay open and available for any life-saving calls and 911 calls,” Zupke said.

Sheriff Zupke said the combination of the two dispatch centers will take around a year. The center will be in Washburn Wisconsin, with around 15 total dispatchers. Ashland County would keep their space in the sheriff’s office as a backup, if needed.

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