Communication situation

(First published in the August 23, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Report says Marathon County dispatch is dangerously understaffed


A Marathon County Dispatcher answers a 9-11 call Monday. A report says that Marathon County needs six new dispatchers and another radio channel.

The data is pretty clear: dispatchers in the Marathon County Communications Center are overworked and the system needs more staff. But asking for more dispatchers will be a challenge as the county enters a budget planning process looking desperately for ways to cut costs.

According to a report released this month to the public but commissioned months ago, calls to the communications center have steadily increased — from 153,130 calls in 2013 to 160,791 in 2016 and on track to surpass that in 2017 (data wasn’t yet complete when the study was done).

More telling is the fact that Marathon County is far below the standard in number of dispatchers who handle these calls. There currently are 29 positions. The study by Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety recommends increasing full-time positions to 35 to bring the center in line with national standards of 4,000-4,500 calls per station, per year.

The study also calls for adding another channel, something that’s sorely needed, says Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks. That was evident during the March 22, 2017 tragedy that left four dead in the Weston area. Dispatch lines were so overloaded that calls into the comm center were bouncing to backup channels all over the state. Overloaded channels, something the report says happens frequently, can have a dangerous impact on officer safety. Officers struggled to communicate during the March 22 active shooter situation, and that’s a scary thought.

“The fact is, officers are dealing with life and death situations,” Parks says. “When officers, or any emergency worker is going out on a call, they need that radio contact. If they can’t speak to someone, that puts them in peril.”

The center currently has two Sheriff channels and one Wausau Police Department channel. The new channel would be a metro channel dedicated to Everest, Rothschild and possibly Kronenwetter.

The lack of dispatchers is making it harder to keep even the 29 positions full, Parks says. “You see individuals who love working here, but the burdens of the job make them want to seek a career change.”

Captain Bill Millhausen says since the report, the Sheriff’s office has filled all but one of the 29 positions, and that they’ve implemented new screening that includes a job shadow day to make sure candidates know what they’re getting into.

The new channel plus the 6 dispatchers to cover it is estimated to cost roughly $400,000.

County Administrator Brad Karger says that even with hard data and expert recommendations in hand, making that kind of ask to the county board during the 2019 budget process will be difficult.