MARTINEZ — Dispatchers are the lifeline between people in peril and the police, with a highly stressful job where a cool head and sound judgment are paramount.

"It takes a special person to be a successful dispatcher, no question about it, and the reason is that the job can come in spikes," said Concord police Chief David Livingston. "It can be relatively quiet and then suddenly, literally in a second, it can change to a life and death decision."

Competition for seasoned dispatchers is fierce, and openings are frequent. Turnover among inexperienced dispatchers can be high.

The Martinez Police Department recently hired four novice dispatchers from a pool of 50 applicants. Three of them have quit already.

Martinez dispatchers' pay starts at $39,048, and it can rise to $47,098 — a salary range thousands of dollars lower than in other cities. That makes it hard for Martinez to attract experienced candidates and provides incentive for their dispatchers to leave, police say.

"We just don't get laterals (transfers); it just doesn't happen here," Chief Tom Simonetti said.

The Martinez City Council voted Wednesday to increase dispatcher salaries by $150 per month, to address a pay disparity with other departments in the county. The top salary will now be $48,898.

"The amount they gave was very generous, of course, but is it going to make a difference? I don't know," Simonetti added.

Martinez has been understaffed for three years, and in the fiscal year that ended June 30 the department paid dispatchers $200,000 in overtime.

Aspiring dispatchers typically must pass a written and oral test, a criminal background check, a polygraph and a psychological exam.

Shasta County dispatcher Laurie Sowder said that in the nearly 20 years she's been in law enforcement, recruiting and retaining dispatchers always has been an issue nationwide. Stress, long hours and night, weekend and holiday shifts make it a difficult job, she said.

And then there are callers who don't want to answer questions; they just want dispatchers to send the police, she added.

For new hires who take the job because they want to help people, the verbal abuse from callers can be quite a shock.

"Dispatchers have to be people who are kind of 'Type-A' personalities who can let things roll off their back but can step up and say you need to handle that call," said Sowder, president of the NorCal Public Safety Dispatchers Association. "You've got to tell cops where to go and what to do and some people are intimidated by that."

Pleasant Hill, where dispatchers earn as much as $73,884, is fully staffed at five, according to Chief Peter Dunbar.

In Concord, which has four vacancies, beginning dispatchers start at $49,000 per year. Lead dispatchers, who are supervisors, top out at $73,000. The Concord council approved an across-the-board 10 percent salary bump for dispatchers three years ago because the city was paying below market wages, Livingston said. He said it takes a new dispatcher about a year to get up to speed on the job.

Dispatchers in Walnut Creek earn from $57,249 to $68,904. In the three months since police Chief Joel Bryden has been on the job, the department has hired three dispatchers.

Although the job is difficult, for longtime dispatchers like Sowder who thrive on adrenaline and the unpredictable nature of the job, there is nothing else they would rather do.

"It's a great job and I love what I do," Sowder said. "I do feel we're helping people, and it's satisfying."

Lisa P. White covers Pleasant Hill and Martinez. Reach her at 925-943-8011 or lwhite@bayareanewsgroup.com.