Kansas City’s Mayor Quinton Lucas recently announced that his administration will offer $5,000 signing bonuses to 9-1-1 dispatchers in an effort to combat staffing shortages in the department.
According to Lucas, Missouri’s largest city is so short on 9-1-1 operators that police response times are being negatively impacted.
“It is horrible that we have people calling 9-1-1 who are sometimes placed in an answering service,” Lucas said. “So you get a voicemail in Kansas City, and they say, ‘Please hold. Your call will be answered.’ It is something that is very serious and significant.”
The mayor added that “dire measures” were needed to correct the problem.
“And the concern isn’t just from calls that are coming in now, but deterring people from calling 9-1-1 when they have an emergency. It’s something that we do not want to do, and it’s why we think that dire measures are needed to address this very important issue,” Lucas continued.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for public safety telecommunicators is around $46,670 per year — or $22.44 per hour.
Lucas believes the low pay is the main factor discouraging qualified applicants from applying.
In addition to offering the signing bonus, the mayor’s administration is also thinking of offering other incentives — such as better hours — to boost recruiting.
“In addition to the other incentives, better hours. So instead of just having to work mandatory overtime, which often happens … particularly, if you have children that are very incompatible to being at home, making sure we’re finding more flexible hours for folks,” Lucas said.
The mayor also said the city is aiming to improve working conditions and promotional opportunities for the role.
“Making sure we give them better work environments and, more than anything, making sure they know that there are good promotional opportunities at the police department and, frankly, beyond to the city,” Lucas explained.
The board of police commissioners has advised the Kansas City Police Department to also try poaching dispatchers from nearby departments and to ease hiring requirements as possible strategies to facilitate recruitment.
Mark Tolbert, the board chair, said the department is short 20 operators.
“We have not stayed consistent on fixing that problem,” Tolbert said. “Again, this raises a red flag for me.”
According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), there is a 30% shortage of 9-1-1 dispatchers nationwide.
April Heinze, a spokesperson for NENA, cited low pay, decreasing benefits, high stress and increased retirements, along with lengthy hiring and training times as factors behind the shortage.
The Kansas City leader also believes the shortages are due mainly to the low pay and the difficult nature of the job.
“I think sometimes it’s overlooked just how hard this job is,” Lucas said. “You’re on the phone with people in sometimes the most tense situations in their lives and including in life and death situations. Too often I think the pay has been too low. So that’s why we’re trying to say not only will you be paid well, there will there be good benefits, and it will be a good quality of life, but frankly, that we’ll thank them in more ways too.”
“I think it’s important that we look to the work of our emergency dispatchers to ensure that they’re also appreciated, both in pay, in support and in benefits,” Lucas added.