OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — For 11.5 years, Crystal Bakker’s calm voice and steady nerves have helped countless people in Ottawa County get through probably the worst moments of their life.

“You definitely have to be calm, calm under pressure. Have to be collected,” Bakker said. “And being able to think outside the box, because we have protocols that we follow, but there are a lot of extra things that happen every day that are outside of the box.“

Bakker is one of over two dozen dispatchers with Ottawa County Central Dispatch. The center handled over 298 thousand calls last year, close to 117 thousand of those came through the 911 lines.

She says despite the stress of the job, the shared experiences between co-workers and the knowledge that, at the end of the day you’ve helped someone out, makes it all worthwhile. 

This job, that Bakker describes as stressful, hectic sometimes and a lot of fun, is becoming harder and harder to fill.

Ottawa County Central Dispatch has four out of the normal 26 positions that need to be filled, with more openings expected after those new hires are trained.  

“We are going to be consistently hiring pretty much all the way through 2022. We’re quite certain of that,” Dispatch Executive Director Peter McWatters said.

COVID-19 and other stressors are causing dispatchers to leave the business.

“We had a couple of people who chose to make career changes. Some who chose to leave early into retirement. Although they weren’t totally unexcepted, that still left us with open positions,” McWatters said.

Supervisors are stepping in as dispatchers and dispatchers are working overtime to fill in the gaps, making sure your call for help gets answered.

“Certainly, it adds to that stress. You’re working more. This position is scheduled for 40 hours a week. And if you’re working more than that, you’re tackling that much more work-related stress on top of that,” McWatters said.

Ottawa County Central Dispatch isn’t alone, dispatch centers across the country are going through similar situations.

Recently, attendees at a conference held by the National Emergency Number Association (NEMA), a 911 advocacy training and research group, were polled on staffing shortages.

“We had well over 50% that had staffing shortages of 30% or more,” April Heinze, 911 and Public Safety Access Point operations director for NEMA, said.

Heinze says pay and benefits for 911 call takers and dispatchers are often the same as jobs with less stress and more family-friendly hours.

“It’s just one of the many different aspects that need to be looked at when it comes to the recruitment process,” Heinze said.

She added dispatch centers need to up their recruitment game, going beyond simply posting jobs on their website or social media page because “nowadays, that is very old school.”

Heinze says they need to focus on public safety job fairs and do a better job of offering up dispatch as an alternative to police, fire and EMS jobs.

“We need to get better at tooting our own horn at what is 911? What does 911 do? How many people do you save each and every day, and what an amazing job it is,” Heinze said.

McWatters says at this point, his center has avoided the dispatch shortages from becoming a crisis.

“I’m proud to say we’ve never had our operations compromised,” McWatters said. “We’ve always been able to cover shifts. And that’s a tribute to our staff.”

Pay range for Ottawa County Central Dispatchers range from $20.60 to $26.93 an hour.

If want more details on what the job involves, click here.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted a percentage. We regret the error, which has been fixed.