Police dispatchers in Eden Prairie might be the ultimate multi-taskers.
“Our duties are to take the information, determine whether or not a ‘call for service’ needs to be created, dispatch the appropriate responder – could be police, fire – make sure we’re documenting what information is gathered, make sure we’re tracking where our responders are and that they’re safe,” says Lisa Vik, who supervises the one-dozen dispatchers who are part of the Eden Prairie Police Department, which has a 2023 budget of about $18.2 million.
And – oh, yeah – police dispatchers must also carefully key all of that information into computers, knowledgeably answer just about any call or question that comes in, and continually monitor cameras and alarms on City of Eden Prairie buildings. All in a calm and professional manner,
And then: repeat. Many, many times.
How many? Well, the Emergency Communications Center tucked inside the Police Department at city hall logged 43,363 calls for service in 2022. That’s about 1.3% higher than the 42,801 calls for service the year before.
About 28% of the calls sorted by dispatchers – their proper title is public safety telecommunicators – were from police officers initiating traffic stops on their own. But there are 180 other call categories, everything from alarm to welfare check.
TOP 5 CALLS FOR SERVICE IN 2022
- Traffic stop (officer-initiated call) – 12,055
- 911 hang-up – 4,580
- Public assist – 2,529
- Alarm intrusion – 1,158
- Suspicious vehicle – 967
(Note: Medical calls are sorted into 18 categories, from burns to stroke, and if added together, would total 3,579 calls for service.)
The heart of the Emergency Communications Center is a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system that records and categorizes the calls that come in, including those that require the assistance of a police officer, animal-control officer, community-service officer or the dispatcher herself or himself. These categorized calls are referred to as “calls for service.”
The total number includes fire and medical calls, because police officers are also dispatched to both of those types of calls. Even a 911 hang-up is logged as a call for service, so there’s a record of it, says Vik.
The 911 hang-up calls, she adds, typically result from folks “sitting on their phones, or inadvertently dialing us.” Accidental calls can also come from smartwatches programmed to dial 911 in the event of a fall or another emergency by the wearer.
Not all calls for service are 911 calls. Many result from residents or businesses dialing the Police Department’s administrative phone number, 949-6200, because they don’t perceive their need as an emergency. And, yet, these calls are taken by or routed to a dispatcher when some emergency response is warranted. An example is someone who has locked themself out of their car.
You might conclude that logging 43,363 calls per year requires an army of dispatchers. That’s not the case. The department employs 11 full-time and one part-time dispatchers, plus Vik as the supervisor.
The most recent staffing increase, the addition of a dispatcher, was authorized by the city council in December 2021. That allowed the center to have at least two dispatchers on duty at the same time throughout the day, whereas before, there would be short stretches with one dispatcher – from 3 to 6 a.m., for example.
“We felt that it was safer to have two on, 24/7,” Vik says.
5 CALLS EPLN DIDN’T EXPECT TO SEE ON THE LIST
- Apiary (beekeeping) registration – 16
- Panhandling – 5
- Chicken registration – 5
- Drone complaint – 3
- Window peeping – 2
The Emergency Communications Center is currently fully staffed, but as with many jobs – particularly in public safety – it’s become more of a job candidate’s market. “I think we are an anomaly,” says Vik. “What we have heard in the metro is that it is very difficult” to find dispatchers.
Years ago, hundreds of applications for a dispatching position might have poured into the Eden Prairie Police Department, and only a handful of candidates would be a good fit. In the last hiring process, city officials heard from 50-some applicants.
In that regard, Eden Prairie may benefit from its pay scale. Its last job posting for a dispatcher specified an annual salary of between $63,000 and $73,700. The median annual pay for public-safety telecommunicators in 2021 was much lower than that, $46,670, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Says Vik, “We’ve been very fortunate; we don’t have a lot of turnover. We have dispatchers that have been here for 30 years.”
Pay and benefits are clearly industry issues. Federal legislation has been introduced to change the job’s formal classification from clerical worker to protective service worker to better capture the complex and critical nature of the job. Doing so would improve pay and benefits, including the age at which retirement benefits could be secured.
For Eden Prairie officials, the ideal dispatcher is someone who excels at multitasking and communicating, and can shoulder stress.
“Someone who can stay calm in a crisis,” says Vik, and who soaks up local knowledge. “We don’t have to know everything. But we have to know the basics of everything. So that when people call, who do we direct them to, or how do we answer their questions? They have a lot of info in their brain.
“At any given moment you have three or phone lines ringing, you’re talking to officers at the same time … you might be listening to several different radio talk groups at the same time, typing things, querying things, recording data – kind of all at once.”
Local approach preferred
Eden Prairie Police, early in their formation, partnered with Richfield Police on combined dispatching services. Some cities still do that, or collaborate with their county on a centralized dispatching center. Now, Eden Prairie does its own dispatching from inside the department’s offices at 8080 Mitchell Road, which also allows it to have a lobby with round-the-clock access by the public.
“I like having our own dispatch center because the officers and dispatchers have a great relationship,” says Lt. Jennifer Ficcadenti, who heads the department’s Support Division, which includes dispatching. “We know each other. If we need something, we just go right back there; they’re not at a different site. We can make connections, and bond. Dispatchers are also included in some of our department training throughout the year.
“It’s better service, I feel, to the community because all the dispatchers have to worry about is Eden Prairie only,” Ficcadenti adds. “They’re very familiar with the streets, the mapping. It’s just a more personalized experience, in my opinion. If I was a resident, I would want to have my own dispatch for my city. You just can’t replace that knowledge that they have, about the city, and that connection.
“The knowledge we have is geared toward Eden Prairie,” Vik adds.
The flip side of having one’s own emergency communications center is the cost and sole responsibility for maintaining and improving technology. In Eden Prairie, when it comes to technology, there are backups to backups: If there’s an electrical outage, batteries are tapped. If batteries go down, there’s a generator on which to depend. There are also backup communication towers.
Another issue for police dispatching is next-generation technology. APCO, short for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, says the industry “profoundly lags behind” the commercial sector in seamlessly exchanging texts, photos, videos, multimedia, and other data. Ficcadenti and Vik say that advanced technology is not a next-year issue for Eden Prairie, but something it will certainly face down the line.
How do Eden Prairie officials measure their success at dispatching? Locally, the metrics aren’t the speed with which dispatchers can take or handle calls, but how consistently they provide calm, complete, professional service.
“Our motto at Eden Prairie PD is ‘Service Beyond Expectations,’” says Ficcadenti. “Our dispatchers provide that.”
“We’re really lucky,” Vik adds. “We have a core group of dispatchers that are very talented, professional, and trained well. It’s a really great group. Very proud of them.”
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