Durham works to build up 911 operator staffing, some city councilors question if these efforts are enough

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – The number of vacancies at the Durham Emergency Communications Center has grown to 28 from the 25 vacancies last month and this has city leaders concerned as more people say they are having to wait several minutes to get ahold of 911.

According to data from the city of Durham’s website, 78 percent of 911 calls in Durham were answered in 15 seconds or less during the month of July.

But the National Emergency Number Association’s standard is for 90 percent of calls to be answered in 15 seconds or less.

But July was also one of the busiest months in history at the DECC as they answered more than 27,000 calls.

During Thursday’s work session, DECC Director Randy Beeman spoke about efforts that are underway to fill these positions.

Beeman said they have added incentives to recruit more highly skilled individuals, such as master communications officers and training officers, to help shorten the training time and assist in staffing levels.

He said they have also added an overtime incentive to encourage more staffing coverage, as 911 operators are now paid double time when working overtime.

Beeman said personnel with the Durham Fire Department and telecommunicators with the Durham County Sheriff’s Office are also providing support with dispatching.

Beeman said they have brought on 11 part-time staff which include retirees and former employees to help make sure all the shifts are covered. Beeman said they have also increased the size of their training academies as their next academy will include eight trainees and an academy in November will include 12 trainees.

Beeman said altogether they will have added 20 new employees by the end of December. Although they won’t be ready to work independently by the end of the year, he said it will bring vacancies down.

“I recognize and take responsibility that we are not meeting acceptable standards of call answer times,” Beeman said. “We are not meeting the expectations of our residents and visitors when callers are not able to receive assistance in an appropriate time.”

Despite these efforts, some Durham City Councilors questioned if enough is being done to address the staffing shortage as there have been several reports of people not being able to get ahold of 911.

Councilman Middleton asked Beeman how much the vacancies have changed since Durham quit sending some 911 calls to Raleigh.

Beeman didn’t have those exact numbers but said they are “at or better” than they were then.

But according to a story CBS 17 did on June 1, the day Durham announced they were going to quit forwarding 911 calls to Raleigh, city leaders told CBS 17 they had 26 vacancies at the time.

This means the number of 911 operator vacancies has grown by two, to 28, since then.

“It seems to me that when we lost our mutual aid, that we didn’t take significant or extra steps,” Middleton said. “I’m not comfortable with this. I don’t want to hope for the best, if we’re not throwing everything in our toolbox. I think there needs to be some emergency action taken.”

Councilor DeDreana Freeman said she tried to call 911 to report a shooting on Main Street last week and she said she had to wait four minutes to get through.

“I want us to be real about how difficult it is to say that we’re ‘at or not at’ (number of vacancies), and that we marry that with actual reality,” DeDreana Freeman said.

Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said several of the measures Beeman talked about during the work session are newly conceived and they do anticipate them making an impact.

Middleton also questioned why the city can’t send some 911 calls to another jurisdiction again while the Durham 911 call center works to build up its staff.

Ferguson said there are discussions underway about possibly routing calls to another jurisdiction again, but nothing has been decided.

“There were concerns in our community when alternate routing was in place and about how those calls were handled,” Ferguson said. “If we’re going to pursue bringing alternate routing back, we have an obligation to try to address those concerns in the process.”

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