Cities across the U.S. are struggling to find 911 dispatchers as a historically tight labor market makes it harder to fill a job that was already a tough sell, reported the Wall Street Journal.

dispatchers remember

Dispatchers are a linchpin of the nation’s emergency-response infrastructure. Their responses to 911 calls directly impact how quickly police, firefighters and other first responders are sent to help and whether they go to the right place.

However, they are also hard to hire, since the job can require workers to make snap judgments on life-or-death situations, often based on incomplete information, for about what they could make working as a manager at a retail store.

With the U.S. jobless rate currently at 3.9%, just above the 18-year low of 3.8% it reached in May, a daunting situation for emergency call centers has turned urgent.

“For a lot of them, the requirement is, ‘We need a warm body’,” said Christy Williams, director of 911 for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The problem is exacerbated because many 911 centers are small and lack the resources to pay up for workers or training.

911 dispatchers

(Photo: Lisa Marie Pane)

The Cowlitz County 911 Center in Washington is trying to hire six new dispatchers, said its director, Deanna Wells. In the meantime, the center’s 16 current dispatchers are working more than 200 hours of overtime a month.

This trend is occurring in many jurisdictions.

For those who doubt the job is difficult and complex, consider the words written by Law Enforcement Today contributor, Lara Sue, who spent 27 years behind the microphone:

I was completely unprepared for all of the feelings that went along with the job. No one told me, or prepared me for 27 years of extreme feelings; feelings of euphoria, guilt, heartbreak, compassion, disgust, hatred, respect, fear, panic, hysteria, depression, excitability, pride, and irritation. Seriously, I had no problem feeling all of those, and more, within an eight-hour shift.

We work in an environment where we have to be emotionally strong, and have control of our emotions. If we admit we are having problems dealing with our emotions, we are labeled, talked about, considered weak, and it becomes hazardous for our careers.

I never admitted that I had a problem during that entire 27-year career, but I paid the price in my personal life. I’m still paying the price. PTSD is a real thing, people! I have nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and extreme protective responses to emergency personnel on the highway, after having one of my officers hit and critically injured while directing traffic on the highway, and losing two coworkers who were struck and killed while working an accident scene on the highway.

No one can prepare you for that. No one can prepare you for hearing “shots fired,” “I’m hit,” or hearing the panic, anguish, fear, hysteria and tears of family members and friends of one who didn’t make it. I have difficulty watching COPS, or Live. I realize that my hands are clenched and sweaty, and I’m holding my breath, multiple times per episode. Even my husband, a former corrections officer, doesn’t understand that response now.

Indeed the career is difficult, but much like a police officer, there is satisfaction to be found in having a positive impact in the lives of people who’ve been traumatized.