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Calls to emergency dispatch double in eight years, and it’s not just iPhones and Apple watches calling 911

Callers can help by knowing when to dial emergency, non-emergency lines

911 Dispatcher Trevor Romney, right, takes a call in the Routt County Emergency Communications office, as indicated by the red light on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. According to local officials, Routt County dispatch received almost 50,000 emergency and non-emergency calls in 2023.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The same Routt County Emergency Communications dispatch staff that answers 911 emergency calls also answers thousands of non-emergency calls each year.

With the growth in residents and visitors in Routt County, there were 10,776 emergency calls and 38,684 non-emergency calls in 2023.

At the same time, Routt County Communications is mirroring state and national trends with significant shortages of emergency dispatch staff. So, the county team that is focused on customer service and safety is also asking residents and visitors to help.



That means people should not call the county’s non-emergency dispatch number at 970-879-1090 asking for ideas for places to park, directions around town or what time a special event starts, as dispatchers need to prioritize 911 emergency calls requiring response from fire, police and search and rescue.

“Calls for service for police and fire doubled in eight years from 25,061 in 2015 to 50,900 in 2023,” said Jim Cullen, emergency communications manager for Routt County Communications.



Currently, Routt County has seven line-level dispatchers instead of a preferred 14, Cullen said, despite offering good county benefits, a training salary of $27.68 per hour for the first six months and a post-training salary of $30.76 per hour.

If a call is necessary but not an emergency, people are asked to call 970-879-1090, and dispatchers can then notify one of the nine primary or 21 support agencies served, such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife or Colorado State Parks. That way dispatchers can more easily prioritize incoming calls, especially during demanding times such as bad weather, wildfires and busy periods of ski season.

Routt County Emergency Communications Manager Jim Cullen, standing, talks with dispatchers Ed Corriveau, left, and Trevor Romney during a break in calls on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Calls to emergency dispatch also rise significantly during the winter and ski season, including 985 calls to 911 in January compared to 486 in April, Cullen said.

Emergency dispatchers also field a lot of calls for other departments such as for the jail, court or sheriff’s or police department records, so residents are asked to remember to call those numbers directly.

Numbers to note

Non-emergency dispatch: 970-879-1090

Routt County Sheriff Records: 970-870-5503

Steamboat Police Records: 970-879-4344

Routt County Jail: 970-870-5509

Routt County Combined Court: 970-879-5020

Connie Johnson, director at the Colorado 911 Resource Center, noted that of the 85 emergency communication centers across the state, “a majority of 911 call centers in Colorado are experiencing staff shortages.”

“Staffing, recruitment and retention is very difficult,” Johnson said of the important but challenging job where dispatchers may work up to 12-hour shifts. “It’s not an easy job, and with 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage, it’s hard.”

Johnson said dispatchers may experience downtime to recharge, but “that can go in an instant to a traumatic situation.”

The crash indicators from Apple watches and newer-version smartphones are also adding to dispatchers’ work, Cullen said. During the ski season, dispatch can receive up to 40 “crash” calls a day directly from people’s watches and cell phones. Dispatchers must call the number back to confirm it is not an actual accident. Skiers or snowboarders wearing an Apple watch or carrying a newer iPhone should be ready to answer a return call from a 911 dispatcher.

Cullen said he previously recommended that skiers turn off the crash alert function, but now local officials have determined they cannot take the chance that the user was not hurt in a crash. In the case of a bad fall on the ski mountain where a skier is incapacitated, dispatchers can observe on their mapping location software to send a GPS location to ski patrol.

Johnson, who has worked in the emergency dispatch field for 40 years, said crash alerts from smartphones and watches represent “still a very active conversation” in the industry among administrators and technology companies.

Johnson wants 911 callers to be prepared to answer questions and to realize that dispatchers may ask multiple questions while those callers are stressed in order to dispatch the most appropriate agency to the correct location.

“The dispatcher is trying to gain the information to get you the help you are asking for,” Johnson said.

Cullen wants people to know that Routt County Dispatch can receive 911 texts for use in emergencies when full cell phone coverage is not available. Voice calls to 911 are best to convey information, but 911 text service has been available in Routt County since late 2021. Currently, the dispatch center receives only six to 10 such texts each month, and a lot of those calls are people confirming the service works.

Text to 911 is available now across most of Colorado, except for in eight counties, Johnson said. Jackson County currently does not have 911 texting, but that text-to-911 service is coming online within 30 days, noted Kayla Rizor, dispatch supervisor with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

Another point for 911 protocol — if someone accidentally calls 911 but hangs up, the caller needs to pick up the call when a dispatcher calls back. If 911 dispatchers cannot reach the caller, they may dispatch emergency services for a welfare check.

Despite being short-staffed, Routt County dispatchers recorded an average answer time of 4.6 seconds for 911 calls during 2023, with 99.1% of all 911 calls answered within 10 seconds.


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