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New Communications Director Rebekah Burkhardt focusing on improving staffing, infrastructure as she takes the lead

JASON CHANEY - Rebekah Burkhardt took over as 911 Communications Director on Oct. 1.

Crook County 911 dispatch is under new leadership.

Longtime 911 Communications Director Tobie Reynolds retired Aug. 31 after a 30-year career at Prineville Police Department, 21 years of which was spent as the dispatch center leader. Rebekah Burkhardt has moved across the street to fill the vacancy. She took over the position on Oct. 1.

"I was at the (Crook County) Sheriff's Office, and I had been there for almost 10 years," Burkhardt said. "I started volunteering in emergency management, and it worked into a temporary position. When Sheriff (Jim) Hensley was elected (in 2010), he opened the office manager position. I applied for that and was put into that position."

Burkhardt continued to ascend the CCSO ranks, eventually supervising the front office and completing all the processes and procedures associated with it. As the chief civil deputy, she was responsible for court processes and dealing with all the legalities related to them.

She later took over human resources for the sheriff's office.

"The county has gone through lots of transitions with their HR department," Burkhardt explained. "The sheriff's office being such a large group with specialized issues and training, they felt like it would be important to keep that in-house."

More recently, Burkhardt played a prominent role in the addition of a new jail. Prior to passage of the tax bond that funded the facility, she worked on budget planning and projections that helped advocate for its financial viability. In addition, she used her construction experience in planning and management of the jail building process.

Burkhardt, who is the daughter of former Sheriff Rodd Clark, remembers the work her dad put into building a new jail, dating back to the 1990s. So it was particularly satisfying to see that project come to fruition.

"That was probably my favorite part about everything, seeing that come full circle," she said.

Burkhardt was enjoying her job so much that she didn't anticipate stepping away from employment with the sheriff's office. But when the 911 dispatch position opened, she saw an opportunity that was difficult to ignore.

"There was a huge opportunity to help here, a need for it," she remarked. "There was a lot of opportunity to strengthen the relationships that we have with our community partners and to just take a fresh look at (the department) and see if there are more effective ways of doing things."

Burkhardt is nearly two months into her new leadership role, and she has already begun looking for ways to improve the 911 dispatch center.

One major concern has been staffing. When she took over, she had four dispatchers capable of working solo status at the desk, fielding 911 calls. Ideally, they would have nine. Recently, she has added three contract employees from Deschutes County 911, and while they have filled in, two dispatchers, Nikki Hepworth and Amanda Harker-Owens, have graduated from Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training's basic telecommunication class and joined the team.

"They have gone through most of their training, so they will be able to go solo pretty soon," Burkhardt said. "We just hired one (additional dispatcher) and have offers to two others, and that will bring us back up to nine."

Staffing has been an ongoing issue for 911 dispatch because of the mental and emotional demands of the job. Burkhardt points out that the average duration of employment for a dispatcher is just two years. She points that dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, four days on and four day off if adequately staffed, but she is working on developing a schedule model that will make the long shifts easier.

"Some of it is related to the stress of the job," Burkhardt continued. "A lot of people come in thinking they are just sitting behind a desk taking phone calls. It's not, because you have got emergencies — you have got people at the highest crisis moments in their lives and you are sending deputies to calls where their lives are at risk."

She said that most times, dispatchers handle the calls, and everything goes fine, but there are times when an emergency hits close to home and has a negative mental and emotional impact on the dispatcher.

"It is like the other first responders, there is a level of stress that has to be managed," she said.

Burkhardt intends to address stress management in hopes of keeping dispatchers healthy and limiting turnover.

Beyond personnel concerns, Burkhardt said department infrastructure needs improvement. She points out that an upgrade to the radio system is already in the works, which should help improve communication in areas where it is difficult for dispatchers to reach deputies. In addition, she is looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the computer aided dispatch system.

"Is there a better program?" she asks. "Is there a supplemental program that we can purchase that will help with pulling in the call loads?"

While tackling all these improvements and managing the department, Burkhardt said she is benefiting from relationships she has forged during her time with the sheriff's office. She has already worked with the city manager and city human resources director and has positive working relationships with Crook County Fire and Rescue, sheriff's office and police department personnel.

"The amount of support I have gotten coming in has been overwhelmingly positive," she said. It has been nothing but positive since I have been here, which has been fantastic."

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