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Rapid-Fire Dispatcher Test Event Aims to Relieve Shortfall

The prospective dispatchers listened intently as the 2012 incident in Longmont, Colo. — which would become a murder-suicide — played out in the recording. Each tried to retain as many details as possible.

Exchange Anniversary Of 911
In this March 2018 photo an employee works at a dispatch center in Terre Haute, Ind. Whether car wreck, intruder, medical problem or some other emergency, 911 dispatchers are trained to stay calm and get the information they need and quickly send help. (Austen Leake/The Tribune-Star via AP)
Austen Leake/AP
(TNS) - Not long after the start of a recruiting event Thursday for the local emergency dispatch center, the three participants listened to harrowing audio from a decade-old 911 call.

A woman provides an address and then screams, "No, no! Please, no."

A man takes the phone and tells the 911 operator, "I just shot everyone."

The prospective dispatchers listened intently as the 2012 incident in Longmont, Colo. — which would become a murder-suicide — played out in the recording. Each tried to retain as many details as possible about the early morning call, in which a disgruntled ex-boyfriend just released from jail had broken into the home of his former girlfriend's sister and fatally shot both women and the sister's husband.

He then shot himself while on the phone with the dispatcher.

Training coordinator Marshall Dean asked the job candidates what address the woman had given in the final moments of her life.

None got it exactly right.

The call highlighted the realities of work at Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center — realities Dean said he wanted to impress upon the applicants.

"When somebody is having the worst day of their life — when you dial [911] — where is it going? It's going to the RECC," he said.

The Regional Emergency Communications Center and the Santa Fe County Human Resources Department held their first in a series of rapid-hire events Thursday morning in downtown Santa Fe in an effort to fill about 30 jobs and recruit trainees. As of last week, the center had a 64.6 percent vacancy rate, down from 67 percent last month.

Current and former employees have cited several reasons for persistent shortages at the 911 center, including low pay, too many overtime hours and what has been characterized as a harsh management style by a previous director.

County commissioners recently passed an amendment to a collective bargaining agreement with the center's workers, which increased wages and altered shift requirements.

Dean said the local 911 center isn't alone in its staffing shortage. The problem reflects a regional and nationwide trend.

"If you look at Colorado , Arizona , Texas — they're all operating at less than 40 [percent] to half of their normal workforce," he said.

Through the county's usual hiring process, applicants for dispatch jobs would participate in an orientation and dispatch simulation test on day one. Those selected to move forward would take part in an interview at a later date, Dean said. At the rapid-hire events, job candidates undergo all three portions of the process over a few hours.

Jonatan Welborn , 41, one of the three participant's in Thursday's event, said he moved to Santa Fe about three weeks ago after a job he had lined up in Oregon "went south."

One of his friends in Santa Fe who works in the health care industry received a notification from the county about the rapid-hire event and passed it along to him. His educational background and first 15 years of work were in human services, Welborn said. "I have something transferable — let's see what happens."

Another applicant, Joe Madrid , said he heard about the rapid-hire event in a news report and was alarmed by the dispatch center's high vacancy rate.

"It's like, 'Oh no!' " Madrid said. "It looked like something that I needed to read, so I read it and said, 'Oh, that sounds interesting.' "

Madrid, 49, has worked in customer service and has military experience — two distinct fields he said have helped him hone his attention to detail and his ability to operate under pressure.

Those skills were put to the test during his simulation exam.

The applicants were given two hours to complete the CritiCall exam — a computer test with 11 modules evaluating several skills, such as data entry, map reading, typing speed and ability to recall numbers.

The program gives applicants an overall score, but Dean said the county takes a more holistic approach to evaluating candidates by examining their scores in individual test areas.

"We're not focusing solely on the [overall] score itself because everybody has their strengths in any of those elements, along with weaknesses in those elements," he said. "... You might have an individual that maybe had a 79 [overall score], but they have 100 here, a 98 here and two 80s. Why wouldn't they be eligible? They're hitting key areas of what's required of them."

A candidate will only be disqualified from advancing to an interview if their scores are low across the board, Dean added.

Dean monitored the applicants' progress through the test on his computer, a task that later will be administered by a human resources worker.

Thursday's applicants were each interviewed virtually by a panel of call center leaders, including interim Director Roberto Lujan , quality assurance specialist Glenda Ortiz and administrator Jennifer Horta .

Dean said he could not confirm whether any was selected to train for dispatch jobs.

He leads an intensive, eight-week training program for trainees, while new hires with past dispatch experience undergo a shorter training process.

Dean has led four trainee sessions so far this year, he said. By the second or third week, he can see trainees' "gears changing" as to how they would handle hypothetical dispatch scenarios.

By the end of their training period, he said, they work through 40 to 50 mock calls each to prepare for critical public safety positions.

"It's a strenuous, mentally challenging position," Dean said. "[The rapid-hire events give] them that opportunity to realize the importance of the job and what they'll be taking on in a career — and how much of an impact they have."

©2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.