Pitkin County 911: From troubled to best in state
Four years ago, the situation at Pitkin County’s 911 emergency dispatch center was on the brink of disaster.
Chronic problems at the critical agency, including understaffing, low morale, low pay and employee wellness issues, coupled with an inability to find a director, led Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and other officials to consider possibly going to a regional solution with Grand Junction as the hub.
“We were struggling to find a leader,” DiSalvo said. “Then all of a sudden, along comes Brett Loeb, who is basically the savior.”
Loeb, who was working as a supervisor at the 911 dispatch center in Grand Junction, was hired as the Pitkin County director in November 2016. A week ago — three-and-a-half years later — two national trade organizations named Pitkin County’s Regional Emergency Dispatch Center tops in Colorado, best of the 86 such call centers in the state.
“I think it’s a big deal,” DiSalvo said. “For a small center like us that has had a lot to overcome just to keep staffing levels up to be picked over major centers in Arapahoe County and Denver is huge.
“Brett deserves a lot of credit.”
Loeb welcomed the recognition after the past year, like most, brought more staffing issues.
“Our world is always difficult,” he said. “Dispatchers are used to being in the background and not getting much attention, so when they do it really helps with morale.”
The award for the best 911 call center in the state came from the National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International, which operate a joint chapter in Colorado.
In particular, the group was impressed by Pitkin County commissioners’ designation of 911 dispatchers as “first responders” alongside police officers, firefighters and paramedics, Loeb said. The designation, which came in October, doesn’t convey financial benefits, though it does elevate dispatchers from a job that was previously thought of as “clerical,” and allows them to take advantage of certain benefits available to the emergency first responder community, DiSalvo said.
“We’re learning that (post-traumatic stress syndrome) is just as prevalent in dispatchers (as police officers and other first responders),” Loeb said, “and sometimes worse.”
Dispatchers are trained in many different medical scenarios so they can advise callers who can’t wait for paramedics or other help. A Pitkin County dispatcher helped a woman give birth by the side of the highway about a year ago, Loeb said (“It was a boy, I think”). They also must master evolving technologies and deal with stress not present in most jobs, he said.
In short, 911 dispatchers must perform under sometimes extreme pressure “just as much as a first responder in the field,” he said.
The first responder designation in Pitkin County — the first in the state — has caught on in Colorado and beyond, Loeb said. Five other Colorado counties have since followed suit, including Mesa County, which named dispatchers as first responders late last week, he said.
In addition, a group in California is modeling a statewide effort there on Pitkin County’s recognition of local dispatchers, Loeb said.
“They’ve all come to us for the template,” he said.
DiSalvo said the county was able to adjust dispatchers’ pay and make it more competitive, while moving the dispatch center from next to the Pitkin County Jail downtown to the North Forty Fire Station has made the commute significantly better. In addition, he credited Loeb with revamping the dispatcher training program.
“It’s off the charts,” DiSalvo said, “and it’s caught on a national scale.”
Loeb said 911 dispatcher-training methods hadn’t been updated since the 1970s, and featured an “old school,” top-down-style curriculum that didn’t resonate with today’s workers. That new way of presenting the same information has made training “more rewarding and successful,” he said.
Loeb also has instituted mindfulness training for dispatchers, which he said has helped alleviate stress and trauma that comes with the job.
He also has been busy on the 911 technology front. Pitkin County’s “Pitkin Alert” system is a good example, he said.
Counties are only allowed to send out alerts through cell towers in their own county area, which can be problematic if a geographic area, like the Roaring Fork Valley, includes more than one county.
After the 2018 Lake Christine Fire in the midvalley exposed that flaw, Loeb applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received permission to include Garfield and Eagle counties in necessary future alerts, he said.
In addition, Pitkin County is working to implement technology that allows backcountry enthusiasts with satellite communication devices to communicate directly with local 911 dispatchers, Loeb said. The technology was developed by officials in Lake County, Wyoming, and allows the satellite device companies to patch together dispatchers and those in need of help, he said.
“All that happened last year,” Loeb said.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock praised Loeb’s leadership in announcing the 911 dispatch center award to county commissioners, and DiSalvo repeatedly lauded Loeb for turning around an essential community resource.
“He’s done unbelievable things since he’s been here,” DiSalvo said.
Loeb appeared less inclined to take any credit and gave most of it to his staff.
“It was great,” he said of the award. “I was very happy we got recognition for all the good things we did.”
The award usually comes with a banquet and $500 check, Loeb said. And while the coronavirus pandemic will cancel the banquet, he said he’ll wait for better, more social days to throw an appreciation party with the money.
“We’ll do it as soon as we can,” he said. “We’ll celebrate with everybody hopefully later this summer.”
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