Cleveland PD starts the new year facing a critical-level dispatcher shortage

Police dispatchers are critical to public safety. At Cleveland Police Department, there is a critical shortage of dispatchers.

By Rachel Hall

Cleveland Police Chief Darrel Broussard and Telecommunications Supervisor Tiffany Keller spoke to Cleveland City Council, as well as the city manager, city secretary, and city attorney, about the staffing crisis in the dispatch center at a special-called meeting on Dec. 28.

“Since October [of 2022], I have lost four full-time dispatchers and I was already short one. I am working with three full-time dispatchers and two part-time – which today is my 17th day in a row to work and I’m about to work 10 more days straight to ensure my other dispatchers have time off with their families,” Keller explained during public comments.

The current staffing crisis is due, in large part, to the lower wage offered by the City in comparison to surrounding agencies. Dispatch positions are hard to fill due to both recruitment and retention. The hiring process can take 30-90 days due to the scope of the position, and trained dispatchers can leave the department to make up $5 more per hour in surrounding agencies for the same job duties.

“If we don’t get some kind of raise or compensation to match the surrounding agencies, I have one more dispatcher who is about to leave for another department for a raise. That will be two dispatchers each working 12 hours per shift – 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. I am requesting the City takes this information and does the steps to help me keep and preserve the dispatch staff that we have,” said Keller to Cleveland City Council.

Echoing the need to immediately address staffing in the telecommunications department, Chief Broussard passed out information about salaries of neighboring agencies. He then read a statement he prepared voicing his desire to support his dispatchers wholeheartedly and wanting the support of the City as well.

“I know this is something that is usually handled during budget workshops, but it has reached a critical level and we must push forward dealing with this crisis. We are losing those dispatchers,” said Broussard.

Since the Oct. 1, 2022 budget was implemented, dispatchers have seen a slight raise in pay to the current hourly rate of $15.94 – up from about $13 an hour about two years ago and close to $11 an hour approximately five or six years ago when some current dispatchers started at the department.

“Working together for this community [we can help dispatch] by putting quality personnel behind the phones and E911 to have a professional staff who have the ability to communicate with our first responders when their lives are on the line,” explained Chief Broussard. “It is a highly stressful position and not a lot of people can do it, and there is not a lot of room for error.”

Chief Broussard asked for council to consider an immediate raise of $3 more per hour, which would put the department in competition with surrounding agencies such as Cleveland ISD Police Department, but still short of Dayton PD, which pays dispatchers over $20 an hour starting pay.

“Dayton will still be above us if we move our dispatchers from $15.94 to $18.94, but that would be a great start and may put us at number one in Liberty County – of course not beating Dayton, but it is something. It is about $6,000 more a year [per employee], but right now we only have three [dispatchers] and we have to start somewhere,” said Chief Broussard to city council before adding his personal appreciation for councilmembers taking this issue into consideration.

While the agenda item for dispatcher pay was moved to executive session for further discussion, there was some public discussion with comments from council members and the mayor.

“We need to do this. We are behind the 8-ball on this, but maybe we can catch it up somehow because we have lost so many key employees for not compensating them for what they have done. It is a good use of our taxpayer funds to compensate our best and longstanding employees and all our employees,” said Councilmember McWaters. “We’ve got to start it and we’ve got to get it done, because we have
lost too many of our people that we can’t get back and we’ve got to retain the people that we have.”

Mayor Richard Boyett asked City Manager Scott Swigert for an update on the salary issue during the public discussion where it was learned there was a salary study completed back in 2021, but not presented to council at the time for review and implementation, so it is currently being updated and planned to be presented to the current council at the regularly scheduled Jan. 17 meeting.

“We are below market and this study will show us where we are below. There may be some employees who may be within the market, but you’ll see overall, as a city, we are below market and there needs to be some kind of adjustment. We do have financial restraints and we have to keep that in mind. If y’all can give us some direction, then we can go back with department heads and myself and work on how we can accommodate the direction y’all would like, and bring it back to you [for approval],” said Swigert.

The workshop and discussion based on the updated numbers for the salary study is still weeks away as currently planned, but Swigert added the issue could be addressed sooner if council chose to do so.

“The idea is that we would have a workshop and discuss it and at that council meeting have an agenda item where y’all could adopt it if you wanted to accept the plan… or if [council] just says we want to do this – that is what it will be moving forward. Y’all will have to determine that. Then we also have to determine going forward if that is something y’all want to implement now or in the future and how we
want to implement it,” said Swigert.

Discussion of salaries, recruitment, and retention of employees at the police department has been ongoing in the growing city – as well as discussions for needs of additional funding in the city’s budget to address needed equipment, facility improvements, officer uniforms, technology upgrades, training, additional staffing, evidence storage, and more as reported in part by Bluebonnet News in 2021. [Read
the article here.]

“We have had several issues. Tiffany brought up several issues tonight about dispatch. We are losing good employees because of pay. We are seeing that all across the board where it is hard to retain good employees and it’s hard to get in new employees as well,” said Swigert.

After meeting in Executive Session on Dec. 28, council members returned to the open meeting and decided to take no immediate action at this time in regards to dispatcher pay as a workshop and presentation of a salary study will take place in the coming weeks.

Since that council meeting, the critical staffing shortage in telecommunications has gone from critical to critically more urgent as one of the three full-time dispatchers had to call in sick and the two part-time dispatchers are limited on the number of hours they can work due to being part-time. This has required Keller to continue working every day for over 20 days and sometimes as the only one on shift.

“In my last paycheck dated December 13-26, I had 137 hours clocked and the pay periods before that I worked 105 and 123 hours including working every holiday,” said Keller who has clocked 67 hours since the end of December to January 2 to help cover for a sick dispatcher and overall shortage.

On Jan. 1, Keller worked 2 p.m. to just after 2 a.m. before a part-time dispatcher could relieve her to go home for a little sleep before she returned a few hours later to clock in just after 7 a.m. to work another full shift until about 4:30 p.m. and with no off day scheduled any time soon with the staffing crisis and salary adjustment currently on hold.

“Even my tired is tired,” said Keller, who somehow still manages to keep a positive attitude and welcoming smile at the police department considering dispatch must answer all calls that are emergency and non-emergency related and greet anyone who enters the lobby of the department.

In December 2022, dispatch received about 4,900 calls for service as they cover the lines for police, fire, and EMS in the city limits as well as some parts of Plum Grove – an average of 158 calls per day ranging from stray dogs to stolen eye glasses to an explosion at a residence to car accidents and more each day.

“One call we received we had someone get hurt in a residential explosion and passed away before the bird could get there,” explained Keller about just one of many calls answered.

Meanwhile an officer on shift on New Year’s Eve was dispatched to follow up with an elderly lady who called about her readers [eyeglasses] being stolen. He offered to stop and pick up new readers at the store on his way to the call for the resident with his personal funds and asked for dispatch to call the resident and get her prescription level so he could get the correct pair.

The willingness of the dispatchers and patrol officers to go above and beyond for members of the community while working long hours and for lower pay than market value is commonplace at Cleveland Police Department.

“We all understand [in city council] and we see y’all work very hard. We are going to take everything we heard into consideration,” said Mayor Richard Boyett at the December 28 meeting to Chief Broussard.

To apply for Cleveland Police Department Dispatch or Patrol, click here. To follow Cleveland City Council, visit clevelandtexas.com.

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