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Editor’s Note: Former West Hawaii Today reporter Tiffany DeMasters is a regular correspondent for Civil Beat on the Big Island. She grew up in Kona where she learned to dance hula at age 6 and later was a competitive hula dancer. She received her journalism degree from Southern Utah University.
HILO, Hawaii — Shanna Badon-Dellomes remembers the night last July when Hawaii County police officer Bronson Kaliloa was shot and killed on the side of the highway in Mountain View.
The Big Island police dispatcher and trainer was taking incoming calls for the Puna District when she received an internal call asking her to send officers to check out an abandoned vehicle off Highway 11. Badon-Dellomes sent four units. Kaliloa was one of the first to arrive.
What was believed to be a routine check turned into the fatal shooting of Kaliloa and an islandwide search for the suspect, Justin Waiki. During the entire incident, Badon-Dellomes kept track of all responding personnel, which included more than 89 officers, on her board and documenting their transmissions.
“That was the worst day of my career so far,” Badon-Dellomes said, as she teared up in the dispatch center. “That changed how I do things as a dispatcher.”
A police dispatcher is one of the hardest positions to fill in Hawaii County. Working long hours in a cramped space, dispatchers take thousands of calls a day from residents, some of them angry, some of them frightened. With a starting wage of $18.38 an hour, retention of new recruits is difficult as many leave before they finish training.
“It’s crazy. You have to have a thick skin,” Badon-Dellomes. “A lot of it is rough and tough, but having good people next to you is important. When stuff hits the fan everyone pulls together, regardless of how intense it is.”
Of the 39 positions at Hawaii County Police Dispatch Center, four are vacant and 10 are currently in training. A sergeant position has been open for several months.
Five new positions were recently added and officials continue to work toward constructing a larger facility to house both fire and police dispatchers.
“I have a tremendous respect for them and what they do,” said Lt. Robert Fujitake of the Administrative Bureau-Communications Section within Hawaii County Police. “It’s that personality where you can be compassionate and obtain all this information and provide it to officers who are responding.”
Police dispatchers follow the same rotating shifts as officers — working morning, evening and overnight. Typically eight hours, they often pull 12-hour shifts because of the shortage.
Fujitake, a nearly 20-year Hawaii County police veteran, began overseeing police dispatch about six months ago. While the No. 1 concern has been staffing, the first issue is finding qualified applicants.
“Even for me coming into this position and seeing it first hand you don’t realize what they’re actually dealing with,” Fujitake said. “The multi-tasking is unbelievable for what they do.”
There are two call-takers who handle all incoming calls. They gather the information then send it to the appropriate dispatcher. There are many occasions where dispatchers are taking calls and dispatching due to the call volume.
Fire and police dispatch centers, both based in Hilo, field emergency calls for all Hawaii County. This past fiscal year, police dispatch handled more than 208,000 calls to 911, up by 7,000 calls from the previous year.
More than 20,000 of those calls were transferred to fire dispatch.
Fire dispatchers are plagued with many of same issues as police dispatch. However, they are also required to know how to answer medical questions and direct those in a crisis.
Robert Perreira, assistant fire chief, said all of the department’s 16 positions are currently filled and five people are undergoing training. Depending on the shift, there are either two or three dispatchers on duty. While fire officials would love to increase the number to three for every shift, they don’t have the staffing for it.
“Our dispatchers are the first responders,” Perreira said. “They’re our eyes and ears before we get there. Seconds are important when we’re dealing with lives, especially our own.”
A class with four recruits at the police dispatch center began in May and there are hopes to start another class later this year.
The classes have a history of poor retention. Lt. Alan Kimura oversaw the dispatch center for a year and half before Fujitake took the post. During his time, he never had an entire class complete training. There would be classes of five where or only two or three completed training. Sometimes it was only one.
Applicants that pass a written exam are given a realistic job preview in both dispatch centers before they go any further into the training process. The preview gives applicants basic insight into what the job entails, shift work, hours and what it takes to do the job.
Once an applicant decides they still want to move forward, they go through two months of classroom training and seven months of floor training.
“The multi-tasking is unbelievable for what they do.” — Hawaii County police Lt. Robert Fujitake
Keeping staffing numbers up and retention in dispatch centers is a national trend, Fujitake explained. In conversations he’s had with supervisors and command staff across the country, dispatch centers everywhere have poor retention.
When she was hired in 2015, Badon-Dellomes was excited. It was also initially scary because of the type of calls “you experience every day.”
In the years she’s been at the police dispatch center, Badon-Dellomes has handled four shots fired calls, including one while she was still training.
Badon-Dellomes knows the job can be overwhelming.
“We all make mistakes, but how do you bounce back — it’s learning how to deal with each call,” she said.
Having this job has changed her perspective on life.
“It makes me appreciate my life more,” she said. “You go home and hug your kids a little tighter. You look at life differently.”
Hawaii County has been working toward a unified police and fire dispatch center for more than 10 years. The planning of the project was initiated in 2007. The center comes with an estimated price tag of $30 million.
Perreira said both police and fire dispatch facilities are bad and they are need of new ones.
The current police dispatch center is about 1,700 square feet. The fire dispatch center is an office behind Hilo’s central fire station. The new facility would be 17,000 square feet.
Fire Dispatcher Jake Nixon agreed the new building is needed.
“Our building is in a tsunami zone,” he added. “Every time there’s a warning we have to pack up and go to Civil Defense (attached to the police department).”
Currently, the Fire Administration Support Complex is in the scoping and design phase, which is the construction of the fire and police dispatch center. The building will also house offices, a training center for firefighters as well as locker rooms and a kitchen.
Project construction is slated to start in 2020 with building completion in 2021.
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