911 workers say centers are understaffed, struggling to hire and plagued by burnout

Published 5:45 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2023

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Emergency call center workers say their centers are understaffed, struggling to fill vacancies and plagued by worker burnout, according to a national survey released Tuesday.

The survey conducted by the National Emergency Number Association in conjunction with Carbyne, a cloud technology company focused on emergency services, polled about 850 workers from 911 call centers across the country. It found that many were experiencing burnout, handling more frequent call surges and felt undertrained. The findings show the widespread nature of staffing problems that have been laid bare in some communities in recent years.

In St Louis this month, callers tried desperately to report that a woman was trapped in her car under a fallen tree but said they couldn’t get through for nearly half an hour. During the same storm in the suburbs, it took a woman 45 minutes to report that her 5-year-old son had been badly hurt by a tree falling on their home. He died, but he was alive when his mother started calling 911, according to a family spokeswoman. Meanwhile, in New York City, panicked callers this month tried to report a Department of Transportation truck that had caught fire and exploded, but said they received busy signals or were sent to voicemail.

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Nationwide staffing shortages that in many cases mirror the shortages in police departments and law enforcement agencies have led to longer wait times or trouble reaching operators at centers around the country, according to experts.

“The numbers we’re seeing right now are really alarming. It was a major impetus of why we did this study. I knew it was going to be high, but 82% of respondents said their centers were understaffed,” said Karima Holmes, vice president and head of public safety at Carbyne and former director of the Office of Unified Communications in Washington, D.C.

Holmes said staffing issues in many centers worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and like many jobs in public safety, it suffered from image problems after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“People are not coming to the job because of people turning away from wanting to have public safety careers,” Holmes said. “But you add to that issues with lower pay, dealing with increased call volumes and people feeling burned out, and it becomes difficult to get people into the profession.”

The survey was released at an online national conference of 911 leaders to discuss possible solutions to the staffing crisis and other issues faced by emergency response centers.

Brian Fontes, CEO of NENA, said the group has been advocating for national legislation to change the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ classification of 911 workers from office or clerical workers to protected service workers like other emergency responders. The change would boost morale by more accurately describing the role of 911 workers and open doors locally to include those workers in benefits programs offered to police and others, he said.

“Iowa has been trying to incorporate them into their state retirement system for public safety personnel, but the legal review came back and said they couldn’t do that because of how these employees are classified,” Fontes said.

The group has also been advocating for a bill that would spend $15 billion equipping centers across the country with newer technology that Fontes and others said would address some of the other issues 911 workers noted in the survey.

The technology, called Next Generation 911, would convert the hard-wired centers to digital internet protocol-based technology. Advocates say the technology would mean more precise location tracking, better access to immediate language translation, the ability to text with callers or take video calls to help see what’s going on in the case of a medical emergency.

It could also mean fewer outages to phone or computer systems, which 60% of survey respondents said happen regularly. Earlier this month, the 911 center in Oakland, California, experienced two outages that forced operators to manually handle 911 calls and delayed response times.

Holmes said she also thinks the technology upgrade could draw more young people to the industry.

Some other findings in the survey include:

1. About 38% of those surveyed said they were not well prepared to handle active shooter calls. About 25% said the needed more training around mental health calls.

2. About 75% of respondents said the high-stress nature of the job was the major factor in staffing shortages, while about 65% said low pay was a significant deterrent. Fontes said that although pay varies widely, he had heard from workers at a center where new hires had left to work at a fast food restaurant for higher pay.

3. About 53% of workers said they experience high volumes of misdials at their center.

NENA officials said many of those misdials come from programs or features on phones, tablets and other smart devices that are meant to do things like detect crashes or falls, or allow easy connection to emergency services.

For example, some 911 call centers experienced a 30% increase in misdials between May and June after a new feature was added to Android phones that connected users to emergency services if a button on the side of phones was pushed five times in rapid succession. Phones and devices rattling around in bags or dropped to the ground were calling 911 many times without users even knowing, which can take up a line and valuable time from operators who have to figure out whether the calls are legitimate.