Like many municipal agencies feeling today’s budget squeeze, the Santa Barbara Police Department has had to get creative about dealing with reduced resources.
The department’s vital Combined Communications Center is often the first line of interaction with a panicked public requesting police — and even fire — assistance in the city of 92,000 residents. But the 24/7 facility has been relying on just 12 dispatchers out of the authorized 18, officials say. At times, even sworn police officers have been used to staff it.
Already facing a shortage of functional strength and wanting to keep its police officers on the streets, Deputy Chief Frank Mannix said the department has created a half-time position of dispatcher training coordinator to boost retention and tame turnover.
And whom did SBPD turn to to fill the job? A recent retiree named Alice Karleskint, who just happens to know a thing or two about the Combined Communications Center, having worked there for 25 years.
“It’s fun, rewarding and ever-changing, a phenomenal job,” said Karleskint, the dispatch center’s first longevity retirement. “If you like it, you really like it.”
It’s not easy work juggling three radio frequencies, taking calls and coordinating police, fire and medical response teams. Dispatchers, like police officers, work shifts throughout the day, weekends and holidays.
From 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily, the center is fully staffed with at least four people, while early morning hours sometimes only have two dispatchers on the job.
Dispatchers receive two weeks of instruction at the Peace Officer Standards and Training school but have little on-the-job training and a steep learning curve. It’s a particular challenge for those who don’t have a law enforcement background, Mannix said.
Within a short period of time on the job, many dispatchers resign or transfer to another position elsewhere in the department. In the last five years, Mannix said, sworn police officers have been used to compensate for the turnover.
The standard isn’t perfection, but mistakes are often internalized and can lead to life or death consequences, he said.
“It’s hard to know someone could be suffering because of your incompetence,” Mannix said.
Earlier this year, three police officers were assigned to the center to fill in for dispatchers on leave, but only one officer is still being deployed there as of late March. A dispatcher makes $67,000 while police officers make $86,160 at the top salary range, according to the city of Santa Barbara’s compensation matrix.
Police officers are quick studies with their experience in codes and knowing what fellow officers need in the field, Mannix said. Karleskint is developing a comprehensive, structural training program that will give dispatchers the same accountability that police officers have.
“I won’t say I’m a luxury, but we haven’t had the option to take dispatchers out of the communications center to train them,” she said.
Compared to police officers’ six months of academy and extensive one-on-one field training, dispatchers get two weeks of Peace Officer Standards and Training school and don’t have any comprehensive field training, she said.
Karleskint said her own training was humbling. With a laugh, she said she wondered “how I got to this ripe old age and still could be so stupid.”
By rewriting SBPD’s archaic manuals and implementing field training, Karleskint wants to ease the overwhelming transition to a live system and follow up on feedback.
“I’ll be available to work with them and get them over the hump, so to speak,” she said.
For training on a live system, Karleskint said she wants to set up computers, radios and phones in her office to prepare employees for the real thing — a training process the department has never had.
The dispatch job has become computer-centric and the field, historically dominated by women, has seen more men applying in recent years. Dispatchers have a one-year probation period, but by then, Karleskint said, it’s usually clear whether the person is right for the job.
Beyond the technical aspects involved — using the computer-aided dispatch system and understanding radio codes, penal codes and where every patrol unit is at any given time — dispatchers must know how to talk to people.
After 25 years, however, Karleskint has it down to a science.
With no visuals, eye contact or body language, Karleskint said deciphering each call for service is almost like a game — although she hastens to add that there’s nothing trivial about it.
“You have to get the most information from a person in the shortest amount of time without them realizing you’re giving them the rush job,” she said.
Even if callers are judgmental, annoying or extremely emotional, dispatchers must be professional and get the facts of the situation.
The Police Department fields many 9-1-1 hang-ups, which are usually mistakes, but dispatchers have to make judgment calls on whether to take action. All hang-up numbers are called back, and “when in doubt, we send them out,” Karleskint said of the police response.
It can be frustrating to not have hands-on assistance for people, but a dispatcher’s job is to give responding units all the information they need.
Dispatchers are often the unsung heroes of emergency situations, not getting credit because they don’t want the credit, Karleskint said.
Even her family never understood why she wanted and loved the job so much, but she urges anyone interested to consider applying.
“It’s up to you to make the commitment to yourself,” she said. “We can give you the tools and work with you, but you have to make the commitment.”