UCSD Police low on dispatchers

    Since the UCSD police department stopped using part-time student dispatchers four years ago to comply with voluntary standards established by the California’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, the department has struggled with a shortage in its communication center.

    The problem reached a peak last month, when a combination of vacation, illness and family emergencies forced the department to pull a police officer and a sergeant out of the field to cover dispatch.

    “”That was the worst manifestation of the staffing shortage,”” said Patrick Dobbins, a 1999 UCSD graduate who has worked as a dispatcher for the department for two years.

    Dobbins felt that such a shortage could pose safety concerns.

    “”When there is a shortage of dispatchers, that is a hazard,”” Dobbins said. “”If someone is breaking into your house, and you can hear them right now, do you want me to be trying to figure out what I am doing here, trying remember how to handle the call or figuring out what number to call?””

    What happened in early December was a very rare occurrence, according to dispatch supervisor Ron Oshmago and police records and communications manager Mary Garcia, who both said that the campus was never in danger.

    “”You don’t want a trained police officer sitting in dispatch; that’s not what they’re trained for, but that was an extreme case,”” Garcia said. “”If something were to happen that needed more field units than we had at that time, San Diego police are really a phone call away.””

    The shortage began several years ago, when the department stopped using part-time dispatchers to receive P.O.S.T. certification. With the recognition, the department became eligible for special training and reimbursement under the program.

    However, that left only four dispatchers to cover the 24-hour-per-day, seven-days-per-week position. In September 2002, the department received funding from the university to pay for two more positions, which it has been unable to fill since then.

    “”It was a high enough priority for us to go to our vice chancellor and ask for the extra funding,”” said Oshmago, who also covers dispatch shifts. “”We would like more [dispatchers]. We would like to get these two slots filled ‹ we’ve been trying.””

    In attempts to do that, Oshmago has organized many recruitment efforts. However, the process of testing, interviewing, checking backgrounds and training recruitments, as mandated by P.O.S.T., has meant waiting up to eight months for an applicant to become a full dispatcher. According to Oshmago, he has held six recruitments in the past four years, and of those six, only two dispatchers have stayed on.

    “”I’ve had eight dispatcher applicants, at least, fall out of backgrounds or withdraw their applications,”” he said. “”We’re not the only dispatch center that struggles with its staffing. Every dispatch center in the county, I’d be willing to wager, is short-staffed.””

    In the meantime, the current dispatchers have been asked to work overtime hours.

    “”These things happen, and we understand it as dispatchers. It makes it tough, though, on us,”” said Dobbins, whose last paycheck included 33 hours of overtime. “”I can’t even count on my days off. If I want to visit family or something like that, I can’t, because I can’t plan on it, and that adds a lot of stress. That really lowers the morale.””

    Dobbins and Garcia said that the dispatchers have not openly protested the extra hours out of sense of obligation to the department.

    “”For the most part, our dispatchers know why the overtime takes place,”” Garcia said. “”It’s not so much that we say, ŒYou have to work. I’m ordering you to work.’ They see the schedule, and they know that it has to be done.””

    Even with the overtime, all but one dispatcher took a vacation in 2003, according to Oshmago.

    UCSD Police Chief Orville King said dealing with the dispatcher scarcity has been a personal priority.

    “”Four can do the job, but we don’t want to use four,”” King said. “”We want to give our dispatchers time to manage their work and not be constantly under the gun.””

    King has helped lobby for extra funding for the two new positions, and secured a nearly 20-percent raise for the dispatchers.

    “”Chief King has really gone to bat for us,”” Dobbins said. “”When I came on, we were the lowest-paid agency in all of San Diego county.””

    Even after bringing new dispatchers on board, the department lost employees to more lucrative job offers elsewhere, Oshmago said. Currently, a fifth dispatcher is undergoing training and a potential sixth is going through background and medical screening.

    According to King, the low staffing levels is not a problem unique to UCSD. However, he said the department would maintain its tough hiring qualifications.

    “”We’re not going to accept someone who has background problems, that we can’t rely on to do the job they need to do,”” King said.

    Though difficult, he does not believe that the current situation poses a safety risk to the campus.

    “”The big question is, are we serving the community … are students safe, is the staff safe, are the faculty safe? The answer is yes,”” King said.

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