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Staffing shortages at 911 call centers in Denver leads to longer wait times

The 911 communication centers in the Denver metro responsible for taking emergency calls and dispatching police, firefighters and paramedics are struggling to recruit and retain workers amid a tight labor market that has made hiring difficult in many industries, leaders of five of the area’s largest centers said.

The lack of workers means 911 callers in many of Denver’s largest communities are waiting longer before connecting with a call taker, thus delaying the arrival of help. Leaders from four of the five agencies, which cover a broad swath of the metro area, said wait times have increased in 2021 due to a lack of employees.

Vacancy rates at five of the largest communications centers in the Denver metro range between 15% and 42% and leaders from each agency — the Adams County Communication Center, Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office 911 Communications, Aurora 911, Denver 911 and Jefferson County Communications Center — said they were struggling to recruit for the demanding job.

“How do we compete with so many available jobs right now that are not shift work, that are not 24/7, 365 days a year?” said Tina Buneta, director of Aurora’s public safety communications department.

Call takers and dispatchers are often leaving the industry for better pay or more regular schedules that don’t include weekends and holidays, 911 directors said. Others are looking for a less stressful job that doesn’t involve helping people navigate shootings, deaths and crashes.

Many call takers are also tired of being the target of misdirected anger and screaming — a phenomenon that has become more common over the last year, said Andrew Dameron, director of Denver 911. He attributed the change to broad anger and frustration caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions meant to curtail it.

“Calls that are relatively routine have taken a horrible tone,” Dameron said, noting racial slurs directed at his staff have become more common. “I’ve had a couple who’ve left who said, ‘I just don’t want to get yelled at anymore.’”

Staffing woes

At Denver 911, the largest center in the state, 44 of the city’s 93 call taker positions and 15 of the 49 dispatcher positions are vacant. Twenty-eight call takers are in training but it takes weeks before they can handle calls on their own, Dameron said.

The staffing shortage comes as the center manages its highest call volume in five years, Dameron said. In September, the 49 call takers handled 59,670 calls to 911 and 72,757 calls to the city’s non-emergency line.

Lack of workers means all dispatchers and call takers are working at least eight hours of mandatory overtime every week. Dameron has reworked scheduling, offered a $1,200 hiring bonus and increased starting pay from $20 to $24 an hour. He’s also trying to help his employees connect with resources that help with the emotional stress of the job.

One worker recently helped a woman who found her 1-year-old facedown in the swimming pool. Another helped a man deliver a baby in a bathtub.

“There’s an emotional whiplash with this job,” Dameron said.

Many other call centers raised wages to help attract more employees. Yearly salaries for entry-level call takers in the Denver area range from $40,000 to $51,000, job listings show.

But higher salaries don’t solve every problem, managers said. Some employees with children were forced to quit when schools closed during the pandemic and they couldn’t find childcare, said Scott Gerhardt, deputy director of the Adams County Communication Center.

All of the 911 centers are using overtime to meet minimum staffing levels. But too much overtime carries a risk of pushing more staff to quit, said Cathy Raley, 911 communications manager for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office. Ten of the 34 dispatch and call taker positions at the sheriff’s office are vacant, she said, and administrative staff are taking shifts in the headsets to help cover gaps.

“After it’s overtime for a long time, you start to get burnt out on that,” she said.

Longer wait times for callers

Wait times are becoming longer at several of the Denver area 911 centers struggling with staffing, causing some centers to fall out of alignment with best practice.

Standards used by the National Emergency Number Association and the National Fire Protection Association state agencies should answer 90% of 911 calls within 15 seconds and 95% percent of 911 calls within 20 seconds.

Colorado agencies often use that standard as a benchmark though there are no statewide regulations enforced by the state, said Daryl Branson, state 911 program manager with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

Denver 911 fell out of compliance with the 15-second standard in May and remained out of compliance every month since then, data show. In October, Denver 911 call takers answered 66% of 51,129 calls within 10 seconds and 71% of calls within 15 seconds.

On average, 911 callers waited about 19 seconds before being connected with a call taker, though 10% of callers waited on hold for more than a minute.

Dameron said call takers are working hard but there are not enough people to deal with the number of calls.

“I’ve watched people skip their lunch break because there are calls waiting,” he said.

Wait times have also grown in Aurora since the end of 2020, Buneta said. About 80% of calls are answered within 10 seconds instead of the 90% they aim for, Buneta said.

Jefferson County Communications Center call takers in September answered 80% of all 911 calls within 15 seconds, short of their goal of 90%, according to a report by the agency. The agency has not met that metric since May and agency leaders wrote in their monthly reports that personnel losses combined with increasing call volume caused the delays.

Other factors besides staffing affect wait times, said Jeff Streeter, executive director of the center. For example, a major traffic crash seen by hundreds of people or a widely-visible smoke plume can cause dozens of people to call 911 at once, flooding the system.

“We’re always doing analysis on how to get better,” Streeter said.

An academy class of one

Recruiting and retaining employees for 911 centers has always been difficult, but Denver-area 911 leaders said recruiting qualified applicants has been particularly difficult this year.

“In all the years I’ve been recruiting for them I haven’t seen this before,” said Betty Wright, senior human resources business partner with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office who has recruited 911 workers in the county for more than five years.

In 2019 and 2020, Denver 911 received between 400 and 500 applications for each 15-person academy, Dameron said. In 2021, the average number of applications dropped to 150.

In Aurora, a single woman comprised the spring 2021 academy class for new 911 call takers, Buneta said.

Sixty-four people applied for the academy in April. Only two of those applicants met qualifications and underwent a background check. Only one woman passed the background check and eventually began work for the agency.

Applicants for many 911 positions in the Denver area must complete a drug test, a background check, a psychological exam and, in some agencies, a polygraph before they can begin training. The lengthy process whittles down the number of potential employees in the pool.

“That’s for a reason — we literally have life and death at our fingertips,” Buneta said. “We have to scrutinize.”

The staffing shortage is an opportunity for change, Buneta said. Not only has it caused wages to rise, but will also force employers to see how they can better serve their workers. Maybe the industry will figure out a solution to let 911 employees work from home or governments will create new ways to reroute non-emergency calls from the 911 call centers, she said.

She also hopes the shortage will create more appreciation for 911 workers.

“Historically this position has been looked more as a support service role and not fully appreciated nationally for the first responders that we are,” Buneta said. “We really have a direct line into life and death.”

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