Durham 911 call taker says training struggles, worker burnout have led to ongoing operator shortage

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Almost half of the 911 operator positions in Durham are vacant, according to data on the city of Durham’s website.

There are currently 28 vacancies out of 60 call taker positions, according to the website. One year ago when CBS 17 first started covering the shortage of 911 operators, there were 30 vacant positions.

Why can’t the Durham Emergency Communications Center build up the staffing numbers?

City officials told CBS 17 in an email earlier this week that their vacancies are the result of employees leaving for other opportunities and trainees not being able to successfully complete the program.

CBS 17 spoke with a Durham 911 call taker, who does not want to be identified. She told us that one factor that’s led to the ongoing shortage of 911 operators is an ongoing struggle to train new hires, as she said not all of those who start the training program are able to finish it.

She said another reason for the ongoing shortage is some of the longer-term employees are feeling overworked and fatigued, and as a result, they leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

The current worker said it’s not uncommon for employees to get called in on their days off to help make sure shifts are covered.

“We have people working these incredibly long shifts without a break, not getting their regular days off like they’re supposed to be getting, working 50 or 55 hours a week,” the call taker said. “That can feed into lack of sleep, poor judgment, and poor decision making, which of course is not something you want for someone who has to make life and death decisions.”

Even with extra staff coming in to help cover the shifts, she said there are still times when 911 calls are not answered immediately.

“Most of the day, and certainly most of the peak hours, there’s at least two or three calls at any given time that are ringing for 10 or 15 or 30 seconds before they are able to be answered,” the call taker said.

While the latest data from the month of November show that 85 percent of 911 calls in Durham were answered in 15 seconds or less, there were still more than 3,400 calls in that month not answered within 15 seconds.

“You hate to think about people calling and giving up before they get through, and not getting the help that they need,” the call taker said.

A city spokesperson said in an email Thursday that to show their appreciation the city is paying 911 operators double time for overtime that’s worked beyond the first 10 hours of each month.

City officials said they have seven more employees expected to complete the program next month.

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal said to help fill the vacancies, in the spring the city will be partnering with Durham Tech to start a new academy for 911 operators.

The academy will train 15 people at a time and last less than two months.

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