Emergency call centers call for help: employees suffer from staff shortages and burnout


Emergency response workers say their centers are understaffed, have trouble filling vacancies and are plagued by burnout, according to a nationwide survey released Tuesday.

Conducted by the National Emergency Number Association in partnership with Carbyne, a cloud technology company focused on emergency services, the survey surveyed approximately 850 employees from 911 call centers across the country. It found that many suffered from burnout, had to deal with increased call increases and felt undertrained. The results demonstrate the widespread nature of the staffing issues that have been exposed 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 said they couldn’t get through for almost half an hour. During the same suburban storm, it took a woman 45 minutes to report that her 5-year-old son had been seriously injured by a tree that fell on her home. According to a family spokeswoman, he died but was alive when his mother started calling 911. Meanwhile, in New York City this month, panicked callers tried to report a Department of Transportation truck that caught fire and exploded, but said they received busy signals or were sent to voicemail.

According to experts, nationwide staff shortages, which in many cases coincide with bottlenecks at police and law enforcement agencies, have resulted in longer wait times or difficulties in reaching staff at centers across the country.

“The numbers we are seeing right now are really alarming. It was an important trigger for why we did this study. I knew it would be high, but 82% of respondents said their centers were understaffed,” said Karima Holmes, vice president and chief of public safety at Carbyne and former director of the Office of Unified Communications in Washington, DC

Holmes said that staffing issues at many centers have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and how many public safety jobs have suffered from image problems after the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“People don’t get the job because they’re turning away from a public safety career,” Holmes said. “But then you add in issues like lower wages, dealing with higher call volume and feeling burnt out, and it’s becoming difficult to attract people to the profession.”

The poll was released at a national online conference of 911 leaders to discuss possible solutions to the staffing crisis and other issues facing emergency centers.

NENA CEO Brian Fontes said the group has lobbied for national legislation to change how the US Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies 911 workers from clerical or clerical workers to protected service workers like other emergency responders. The change would boost morale by detailing the role of 911 workers and opening doors on the ground to include those workers in benefit programs offered to police and others, he said.

“Iowa tried to include them in its state pension system for public safety personnel, but legal review determined that they could not do so because of the classification of these employees,” Fontes said.

The group has also pushed for a bill that would provide $15 billion to equip centers across the country with newer technology that Fontes and others said would solve some of the other issues 911 workers raised in the survey.

Dubbed the “Next Generation 911,” the technology would transition the hardwired centers to digital internet protocol-based technology. Proponents say the technology would mean more accurate location tracking, better access to instant voice translation and the ability to text or take video calls with callers to see what’s going on in the event of a medical emergency.

It could also result in fewer phone or computer system outages, which 60% of survey respondents say are regular. Earlier this month, the 911 dispatcher in Oakland, California experienced two outages, forcing operators to manually process 911 calls and delay response times.

Holmes said she also believes the technology upgrade could attract more young people to the industry.

Other survey findings include:

  • About 38% of respondents said they were not well prepared to deal with active shooters. About 25% said more training on mental health calls was needed.
  • About 75% of respondents said the high pressure of the job was the main reason for the staff shortage, while about 65% said low wages were a significant deterrent. Fontes said that while pay varies widely, he has heard from workers at a center where new hires have gone to a fast-food restaurant for higher pay.
  • Approximately 53% of workers reported that voting by mistake is common at their center.

NENA officials said many of these miss-dialing stem from programs or features on phones, tablets and other smart devices designed to detect accidents or falls, for example, or allow easy connection to emergency services.

For example, some 911 call centers saw a 30% increase in missed dialing between May and June after Android phones added a new feature that connects users to emergency services when a button on the side of the phone is quickly pressed five times. Phones and gadgets rattling around in pockets or falling on the floor called 911 many times without users even realizing it. This can take a line and valuable time from operators trying to figure out if the calls are legitimate.

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