The center hovered near full staffing for about a year but began having problems in November, said Audrey Rychalsky, operations manager.
With the unexpected departure of several dispatchers, the problem has gotten worse over the last few months, she said. The center is now down 11 of 66 dispatchers, she said.
"Things were looking pretty good," she said. "Things had leveled off. Unfortunately that's not how things stayed.
"It (understaffing) goes in spurts, but it has been amplified in the last couple months."
The understaffing does not threaten the ability of the center to operate, Rychalsky said. But to maintain full coverage, supervisors and dispatchers are required to work 8 to 12 hours of overtime per week.
Mandatory overtime has been part of the job for years but fluctuates with staffing levels, she said.
Better than before: The shortfall is not the worst the center's administration has seen. At one point in late 2004, the center was down about 20 dispatchers.
To combat its staffing problems, the center is using national job boards, direct advertising to fire and emergency medical agencies and has expanded newspaper advertising into the Harrisburg and Baltimore markets, Rychalsky said.
A group of 10 new trainees was to start this week, but only six showed up.
Dispatchers make a base pay of about $12 an hour, but earn more for evening and overnight shifts.
Rychalsky said there are a lot of reasons why people come and go.
For some, the intense job is overwhelming or not a good fit. Others find better-paying jobs elsewhere, run into personal problems or decide they want to go back for more schooling.
"It's any number of issues," she said. "I think it's predicated on personal preference."
Commissioner Steve Chronister said he suspects that pay along with stress and other reasons might be one reason people leave the job.
Overtime costs: He said the county should consider a study to determine whether the county would benefit by increasing pay to retain dispatchers. The hope would be to reduce overtime costs.
Rychalsky said she has budgeted $470,000 this year for overtime, but expects to come in under budget.
The dispatchers who stick around appreciate the value of their jobs, Rychalsky said.
"They're certainly helping their community," she said. "A lot of people get into this job because they want to get into something special and they have the opportunity to help their neighbors, friends and family."