'We've been hurting for so long.' 911 centers vacancies shrink, recruitment still a challenge

Samantha Kummerer Image
BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Tuesday, April 18, 2023
911 centers vacancies shrink, recruitment remains a challenge
Similar to so many fields, many 911 centers across the state are continuing to struggle to fill vacancies.

For years, 911 call centers across the Triangle have struggled to maintain staffing levels as calls for help increase.

"We've been hurting for so long," shared on Raleigh-Wake dispatcher who chose to stay anonymous to protect their job.

Similar to so many fields, many 911 centers across the state are continuing to struggle to fill vacancies. The difference in this field though is the stakes are higher.

"Everyone has gotten so far behind that now you have so much catch-up to do while the job still goes on because it's not like you can shut down the center for six months to get people trained," the dispatcher said.

In the first three months of 2023, DECC reported losing six team members. The latest data shows the center is reporting a 31% vacancy rate. Since last June, the center has filled around 5% more positions.

On the other end of the Triangle, the Raleigh 911 center reported losing three positions between January and March 2023 and 21 employees since last July.

While recruitment and retention remain an ongoing challenge, call volumes continue to rise as the number of residents increases daily. The Durham 911 center already received 8% more calls this year than last year. The increase in calls places an even greater need for 911 centers to be staffed and equipped with handling the area's growth.

While most of the Raleigh-Wake 911 center's administrative and IT jobs are filled, 20% of its operational positions are vacant. The situation is slightly better than last June with around 7% more of its overall positions filled.

Filling these positions isn't a quick fix either. The demands of the job mean new hires are required to go through weeks-long training programs.

"A telecommunicator could actually be using up to six different software at one time, depending on the type of call that they are receiving, and their multitasking abilities are just crazy. So it's a lot to learn. But it's a very rewarding job," explained Pokey Harris, the executive director of North Carolina's 911 Board.

While both centers are recruiting and offering training classes, not all new hires stick around.

The ABC11 I-Team obtained data on the retention of training classes and found only 33% of the people who started training for the last five training classes went on to work at the center.

In Raleigh, the data is slightly better with an average of 66% of the new hires making it through training.

"You've found a find that middle ground where you're not being so picky, that you're cutting all possibilities out of getting people in the door, but you're not being so open that people who shouldn't be making it are now wasting hundreds of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars," the dispatcher said.

The city of Raleigh spends around $143,000 for each training academy. The cost includes salaries and certification courses, according to a city spokesperson.

Durham would not share how much it costs to train a new class of dispatchers.

Angie Turbeville, the eastern regional coordinator for N.C. 911 Board, said low retention rates in training academies shouldn't necessarily be blamed on jurisdictions.

"Someone can have the best intention but then once they actually start with the training, and they actually start taking calls, they find that that job is not for them," she said. "And it's not a negative against the 911 center or a negative against the person. It's just not the right fit. It is a very specialized field."

Harris also pointed to the competitiveness of the job market right now as another reason some of the retentions are out of 911 center's hands at times.

"We can't hold them any more accountable than we can the retail industry or the hotel industry or the food service industry because everyone is competing for that pool of employees; and in getting the right employee," Harris said.

The Raleigh-Wake dispatcher said their center has started hiring call takers who are not fully-trained dispatchers but can answer some calls and take some of the load off the dispatchers. They said this partially helps but isn't a true fix.

"You don't have to split your focus, which means you're not potentially putting somebody in danger because you're trying to give CPR or get somebody you know the stroke diagnostic or some kind of crazy medical thing while also having an officer on traffic screaming that he needs help," they said.

Last year Durham partnered with Durham Technical Community College to offer a course in the hopes of helping train more dispatchers for the county.

A statewide telecommunicator PSA campaign also targeted the Durham area last year. Harris said that following the campaign there was a 68% increase in dispatcher applications.

This year the North Carolina Department of Information Technology expanded the campaign statewide.

"The retention is going to be on the part of the jurisdiction or the county to make sure that they do follow through with the appropriate training, the benefits are there to keep the individual engaged; to create that career path," Harris said.

She encourages counties to have a good streamlined training program and really talk with applications beforehand to help make the most of new potential recruitment opportunities.

Harris also said a two-year degree program will soon be at Richmond Community College.

"We are trying to offer as many opportunities for those that want to look at being a telecommunicator as a career and as a profession," Harris said.

Pay has also continued to be a big barrier in the industry and between jurisdictions. Some dispatchers will get trained in one town and leave for higher pay and fewer responsibilities in another town.

Over the past few years, jurisdictions have increased their pay scales and offered bonuses to combat this issue.

The dispatcher who spoke to the I-Team said they see some progress being made but change won't come soon.

"It's a multifaceted issue," they said. "There isn't just one solution. I think you're going to have to take a lot of different steps and you're still going to have one, two, three, four years before you can really solve this problem."

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