The Metropolitan Emergency Communications Board (MECA) on Wednesday approved a request to shift money around to cover a shortage of dispatchers.

The board is made up of the mayor of Pine Bluff, Jefferson County judge, Jefferson County sheriff, Pine Bluff police chief, Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services chief, a representative of the 911 board and the coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management.

At the meeting, Karen Blevins, who is the OEM coordinator and supervises MECA, said it has been difficult to maintain staff and that she currently has four positions open. In addition, two dispatchers have given their notices, and she said she has been able to fill only one opening.

“There’s not a lot available in the workforce,” she said, adding that applicants are required to complete a typing test, drug screen and background investigation. In 2017, dispatchers’ salaries were increased from starting at $21,800 annually to $24,308 annually, then increasing to $26,000 after training.

With the staff shortages, Blevins won approval to move $20,000 from the money that had been set aside to pay an operations manager, a position that has not been filled this year, to part-time and overtime, split evenly at $10,000 for each category.

“If somebody calls in sick somebody else has to stay,” Blevins said.

Although the board approved the request, the Jefferson County Quorum Court will have the final say.

MECA is funded by fees collected on landline and cellular telephone lines, as well as money from user agencies, based on their usage of their usage of the system. For example, Pine Bluff is the largest user because of both the police and fire departments and pays 70.76 percent of the agency funding.

Jefferson County’s share is 25.35 percent and so on.

Regarding usages, a chart given to MECA board members Wednesday showed that dispatchers handled 30,511 calls for service in Pine Bluff, largely for police, and another 3,547 for the fire department through the end of August. There were 5,190 calls for service in the unincorporated areas, excluding volunteer fire departments.

White Hall accounted for 2,103 calls, while Redfield’s total was 508.

Through the first eight months of the year, dispatchers handled 42,966 calls.

Blevins said that fees collected on landline telephones are declining statewide as more people switch solely to cellular telephones, but the current fee structure calls for collecting only 65-cents per month per cellular line, which is collected by a state agency and returned to counties on the basis of population.

“That’s going to be a big topic in the legislature,” she said. “The Arkansas Association of Counties and the County Judge’s Association are pushing for an increase, and I haven’t heard what the final figure is going to be. They’re saying maybe double.”

In addition, she said there will also be a push to strengthen 911 in the state since there is currently no central agency to supervise the various call centers and services.

“Every county does it differently, and funding is different in every county,” Blevins said.

After attending national conferences, Blevins said another topic will be next generation 911, which will allow call centers to also receive text messages and streaming video, and while that is still a few years away, “it’s going to require a lot of updated equipment.”