DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A new audit uncovered while the Durham Emergency Communication Center (DECC) is increasing staffing, retention remains a key issue as 911 response times remain below national standards.
Slow response times and staffing shortages have been documented at the center multiple times over the past few years. The city's latest audit demonstrates those issues have not fully been resolved.
"Lives can be put at risk if communications center staffing is not adequate. Given recent staffing challenges that all PSAPs are facing nationwide, it was important to ensure DECC is prioritizing monitoring of its staffing and making adjustments as quickly as feasible to provide the best service to its residents," the Durham audit stated.
One of the starkest findings was while 99 employees were hired, 81 left the city between 2020 and 2022.
The ABC11 I-Team spoke anonymously to one of the former employees who left during that time. The employee said they left for another 911 operator position in a different jurisdiction that offered more money.
The center's turnover rate has remained below 40% for the past two years, but in recent months that rate has skyrocketed to 64%, according to the audit.
The former Durham 911 operator told the I-Team they are concerned about retention.
"Anybody would be concerned. I'm concerned on multiple levels. You're concerned for the safety of the citizens but you're also concerned about the safety of the employee," the former 911 operator said. "With that turnover rate being high, it means the people who are there now have to work harder to accomplish the task so that may mean they may not have as much time in between shifts. 'Hey can you work overtime, overtime, overtime?'"
The city's report cited a National Emergency Number Association 2021 article that stated emergency dispatch centers were experiencing 15-20% employee turnover.
Around half of Durham's employees said their biggest reason for leaving was due to dissatisfaction with training opportunities. Thirty-one percent left for a better job and career advancement and 27% quit due to the high stress and excessive workload associated with the position.
The former Durham 911 operator said the stress of the job only increases with a high turnover rate.
"It's really hard if you're short staffed to provide that work-life balance when you also have to manage 911 calls because someone has to answer the call," they said. "You try to do the best you can with the resources that you have so when someone calls out or they leave unexpectedly that time has to be filled, it has to be... but that burns you out."
Of the 34 employees who left this past fiscal year, 75% were with the center for less than a year.
The center currently has around a 25% vacancy rate with 21 positions opened. This is slightly better than in May when 37% of its positions were open.
Earlier this year, the ABC11 I-Team surveyed surrounding counties and found the average vacancy rate was around 21%. At the time, Fayetteville and Apex reported some of the highest rates at around 40%. In March, Raleigh had a vacancy rate of 33% last month.
The former Durham 911 operator did credit the city for taking steps to try to lower these numbers.
"Durham is honestly trying to be very creative in trying to fix the problem," the former employee said.
The center has increased its hiring efforts. Twelve employees can be trained at a time, this is three times more than the previous limit.
"This training level was creating a bottleneck to increasing staffing levels," the report stated of the center's previous limit to only train four people at a time.
DECC has also partnered with Durham Technical Community College to create a 911 Academy; an effort stakeholders hope will increase the pool of applicants.
"I think with the lack of the people that we had to do communications in within our community within Durham and Orange County. Our president, President Buxton, got together with the local leaders and they came up with an idea of starting the program and communications that could help the community to get some individuals trained so that we could possibly employ them in those positions," said Ernest Jannetta, Durham Tech director of public safety training.
The first class is set to graduate this week and Jannetta said more than 20 are already on the wait list for the next class.
"Since the individuals are right here, our community such as NCCU, Duke, Orange County 911, Durham City have an opportunity to come and meet those students and recruit those students after graduation," he said.
So far some of the center's recruitment and training efforts seem to be paying off with 52 employees onboarded this past fiscal year; a number more than the past two years combined.
However, as soon as they come in the door, many are walking back out. While 52 employees were hired in the last fiscal year, 34 employees left and 75% were with the center for less than a year.
"As we always expect to happen, some recruits make the decision that this isn't the right career choice for them during the first year, which is the most challenging, since there is a lot to learn and do. Morale also can be a challenge," DECC director Randy Beeman wrote in a statement.
He said the center is working to point employees to ways to relieve stress and help connect staff to career development opportunities.
To fix this, the report suggested the center "perform root cause analysis and address issues identified if feasible. The DECC Department staff should also perform internal studies (surveys, focus groups) to understand why employees choose to stay."
Despite the high turnover, the report did find DECC was able to maintain minimum staffing levels in 2022. However, in April the center reported 16 shifts that did not have minimum staff.
Mark-Anthony Middleton, Durham Mayor Pro Tempore, has pressed for improvement at the center for the past year. He said retention is an issue every industry in the country is facing but understands the need for continual improvement.
"I'm pleased with the efforts that have been undertaken but satisfaction is not a word that I would use not in terms of effort or outcome," Middleton said. "We have to--24-hours a day, seven days a week--have to be able to respond to our citizens and residents when they dial 911. So this is something that I'll never take a victory lap on."
Recent data revealed the percent of calls answered within 10 seconds is slightly better than in 2021. Around 84% of calls have been answered that fast so far this year, compared to 81.8% in 2021. The center is still failing to meet the national standard of answering 90% of its call in 10 seconds or less.
"June call answer times reached 81% of calls answered in 10 seconds or less, which shows we continue to trend in the right direction. Are we satisfied? No, but we are steadily working toward improving that number through increased recruitment, staffing, training, and continuing to employ part-time staff," Beeman wrote.
Beeman further stated that DECC is headed in the right direction and 'fully supports the audit findings and the process for improvement and transparency.'
"I think just continue to double down on what we're doing, continue to make sure that our pay is competitive, continue to make sure that we train people, have the best training and the best supervisors and best folk to manage our emergency call center," Middleton said.
The Durham City Council is scheduled to discuss the audit next Tuesday.
The city also residents to publicly track the center's progress on their website.
"As many challenges as we're facing, calls are being answered, and help is being dispatched," Middleton stressed. "I want residents and citizens to know that the city's number one priority is to protect the lives of our citizens and residents and property as well. Their calls are being answered but other areas for improvement. Absolutely. And we're absolutely committed to doing this."