The Becker County dispatch office will be staffed with an additional full-time communications officer after a number of fire chiefs from Becker County communities asked the County Board to make the move last month.
Currently, one dispatcher at times handles calls for all 10 fire departments, all local police departments, Essentia EMS, rescue squads, Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota State Patrol and all calls for the Becker County Sheriff’s Office, many happening simultaneously, Audubon Fire Chief Chris Wiedenmeyer told commissioners last month. Wiedenmeyer heads the Becker County Fire Chiefs Association.
“The current dispatchers are limited by lack of staffing and are often overwhelmed,” Wiedenmeyer told commissioners during the open forum portion of the meeting last month. “The population of Becker County has increased by 2,000 residents since 2010. Our call records have increased during this time as well (and) this year we are on a pace to break previous call records,” he added.
“I feel there is a need for this position,” Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander told commissioners on Tuesday. “Our calls for service have gone up significantly since 2005 -- 80% with traffic stops and 37% without traffic stops, including the city of Detroit Lakes,” he said.
There was some discussion before the vote, with Commissioner Barry Nelson (who formerly worked as a dispatcher) noting that overnight shifts are the slowest times. “It’s chaos or nothing,” he said. “Are there additional duties this person can do (to fill the slow periods)?”
“Absolutely,” Glander said, listing several possibilities. He also noted that not all work dispatchers do involve official calls for service, since there are also requests from law enforcement officers for license plate checks and driver’s license checks, among other things.
Commissioners weren't wildy enthusiastic about the idea of adding a full time dispatcher. Nelson, the most vocal supporter of the idea, noted that “we have put a lot of money into technology. At some point, we hoped to see a reduction in staff costs.”
“Not likely,” said Commissioner Larry Knutson.
The position will cost about $67,000 a year with salary, health insurance and other county costs. It pays $43,794 a year, according to the 2022 budget.
Glander had requested the position in the most recent sheriff’s office budget, but commissioners took it out to keep the tax levy increase to a minimum.
Nelson asked about the feasibility of providing backup dispatcher services to neighboring counties, to bring in revenue while helping cover their busy times, and Glander said that could be a possibility.
It’s a commissioner’s job to think outside the box, Nelson said. “If you don’t look at options, you’re not doing your job,” he said.
“How would it be paid for?” Commissioner Ben Grimsley asked Glander prior to the vote. “I don’t remember there being a lot of room in your budget.”
“I asked for it last year, it was taken out because of the levy,” Glander said. But the money will likely be available, since the sheriff’s office is projecting perhaps $400,000 in excess revenue by the end of the year from boarding federal prisoners in the Becker County Jail, noted Knutson.
“That’s something," Grimsley said. “That helps.”
The board voted unanimously to approve the request, which will ensure that at least two dispatchers are on duty on overnight shifts.