Burnet County Sheriff’s Office Communications Lead Katie Fox sits at a console where she monitors six screens and takes calls from dozens of departments, personnel, and residents across Burnet County. Her department is currently down four dispatchers, leading to a buildup of overtime. The Burnet County Commissioners Court made policy adjustments on Tuesday, Oct. 11, to help lighten the load. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey
The Burnet County Commissioners Court approved two policies in support of overworked and understaffed Burnet County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers during its regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 11.
One policy amends personnel overtime rates to reflect actual wage rather than an average of hourly wages. The other policy will allow for the rollover of unused vacation time.
“The Sheriff’s Office is currently short on dispatch services, and to cover that, they have been requiring other employees to cover with overtime,” Sara Ann Luther, the county’s Human Resources director, told commissioners Tuesday.
Luther explained that the previous policy averaged an employee’s hourly rate when they filled in for a dispatcher rather than give them their standard overtime rate. Under that policy, anyone who had a higher wage than a dispatcher would take a pay cut when covering for them in overtime.
A starting BCSO dispatcher makes $20.48 an hour, while a certified master peace officer may make $30 an hour. Under the standard county overtime policy, the master peace officer would normally make $45 an hour in overtime. However, if they were to cover for a dispatcher, their overtime pay could drop to $35 an hour, depending on the amount of overtime they worked.
Commissioners approved a policy to allow personnel filling in for dispatchers to receive their full overtime rate until Dec. 31, 2022, at which point, it will return to normal.
Currently, the Sheriff’s Office has nine dispatchers. It needs 13 to be fully staffed. Four new dispatchers are being trained, but it will take months to get them certified and up to speed, according to BCSO Capt. Mike Sorenson.
“The amount of training they have to go through is very stressful,” he said.
The pay rate in Burnet County is competitive for the region but not for the job in general. The long hours, high stress, extensive training, and number of certifications required make it difficult work, Sorenson said.
BCSO dispatchers serve most of the county’s police departments, fire departments, emergency services, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, and, of course, the Sheriff’s Office. Dispatchers typically work 84-hour pay periods made up of 12-hour shifts. With the current shortage, they work on average over 100 hours a pay period.
“The ones that do this truly love what they do,” Sorenson said. “They like being part of this family we have here and they like keeping our guys safe. Because that’s what they do: They keep us on the streets safe.”
BCSO Communications Shift Lead Katie Fox told DailyTrib.com she has routinely gone well beyond her standard shifts, citing an instance when she worked from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. then returned to work at 10:30 p.m. for another 12-hour shift.
“Everybody can’t work all the time, and we find ourselves having to fill in where we can,” she said. “We’re working a lot.”
Sorenson believes the four trainees will alleviate much of the burden on dispatchers and other BCSO staff who have been filling in for them, but they are months away from being fully functional.
These short-staffing issues tie into another policy change that will allow BCSO dispatchers to carry over 160 hours of vacation time into the next year rather than the standard 80 hours. According to HR Director Luther, dispatchers often don’t have time to use their vacation hours because no one is available to replace them.
“Our policy that does not allow (dispatchers) to carry over more than 80 or 120 hours, depending on their length of service, becomes somewhat punishing to them because they have not had the opportunities to use the benefits that were offered to them,” she explained.
The policy change has been renewed for at least four years, Luther said.