Durham faces challenge filling 911 operator positions as many don’t make it through rigorous screening

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – The City of Durham is actively working to fill 911 operator positions as its emergency communications center is facing a shortage of call takers.

However, one of the challenges the city is facing is finding enough applicants who have the skills needed to answer 911 emergency calls.

As CBS 17 has previously reported, 25 of the 64 positions at the Durham Emergency Communications Center (DECC) are vacant. That shortage forced Durham to forward thousands of 911 calls to Raleigh Wake 911 for six months.

While the staffing levels at the Durham 911 call center are improving, 39 percent of their positions are still vacant.

Durham city officials told CBS 17 that it’s a rigorous hiring and training process that applicants must go through to become a 911 operator. Not everyone is cut out for it.

“You have to always be on your toes,” said Elizabeth Poole, education and training coordinator for DECC. “You have to be able to really become engaged with someone in that moment over the phone. They have to be able to put themselves in their shoes and recognize what their needs are.”

No one knows what it takes to be a 911 operator more than Poole. She became a 911 operator in Durham when she was 21 years old.

“It’s a very challenging career and it’s a very rewarding career,” Poole said.

Now, Poole trains operators at the DECC and makes sure they are hiring the right people for the job.

She said they have to go through a series of tests, including the CritiCall test. It requires strong multitasking, memorization, decision-making skills, and other abilities that are crucial to succeed in the job.

“We get a lot of applicants and so we do weed out a lot of applicants based on those scores,” Poole said.

CBS 17’s Crystal Price took the CritiCall test to see if she had what took it to be a 911 operator.

She was tested on her ability to remember phone numbers, addresses, and names. Applicants are also tested on their reading comprehension.

Price didn’t pass the CritiCall test. She struggled to recall certain numbers and letters, which Poole said is crucial to succeeding as a 911 operator.

“We’re constantly getting data presented to us, and we have to capture that correctly because sometimes you only get one shot of getting that information,” Poole said. “This is not an easy job. Not just anybody can do it.”

Poole said that’s why it’s hard to fill the 911 call taker positions.

But she said they are constantly looking for qualified individuals and if you think you have what it takes, you’re encouraged to apply.

“It’s very rewarding to know all the lives you get a chance to have an impact on in your career here and knowing when you did make a difference for them,” Poole said.

The starting pay to be a 911 operator in Durham is $37,400. There are currently four positions posted on the city’s website.

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