AFD staffing shortage leads to fears of disaster

Published: Jul. 18, 2019 at 9:32 PM AKDT
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Anchorage Fire Department dispatchers are fielding more calls without an increase in staffing.

According to the AFD, calls have increased from 68,677 per year in 2002 to 127,940 in 2008. Since 2012 they’ve had 20 dispatchers, up from 16 in prior years. But as call numbers continue to rise, staffing has not kept pace. Halfway through 2019, they’ve already answered 70,000 calls in just about six months — which puts them on track for a record-high number of calls by the end of the year.

Driving the rise are drug-related calls, extreme weather, fire, and of course the November 30 earthquake.

The department of about twenty has a lot on their hands, occasionally coaching people through CPR, childbirth, and safety during emergencies, until units can arrive.

“That’s why we call them the first first responders,” says Jodie Hettrick, the Fire Department Chief.

But being a dispatcher is stressful and can take a toll. Lori Zaumseil was a dispatcher for 12 years.

“I don’t work there anymore because of a situation that involved an incident in work, where I ended up leaving with a diagnosis of PTSD,” she said.

She said a lot of people have similar feelings.

“Everything we do controls the outcome of a call,” she said. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”

“What I worry is it’s gonna take a horrible, horrible thing for the attention to come,” she added.

Hettrick acknowledged as much, and has been pushing for more resources.

“Eventually, if we break people, that means we’re totally out of a person,” said Hettrick. But adding another three people would cost the department $500,000, but requests for extra funding have been turned down in the past few years.

That has real, tangible consequences, including that some 911 callers are sometimes put on hold.

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