Staff shortages at 911 call centers in Denver lead to longer wait times

The Denver Metro 911 communications centers tasked with responding to emergency calls and dispatching police, fire and paramedics are struggling to recruit and retain workers in a tight labor market that has made hiring difficult in many industries, said executives from five of the region’s largest centers. .

The lack of workers means 911 callers in many of Denver’s larger communities wait longer before connecting with a caller, delaying the arrival of help. Executives at four of the five agencies, which cover a large part of the metropolitan area, said wait times increased in 2021 due to a lack of employees.

Vacancy rates at five of Denver’s largest subway communications centers range from 15% to 42% and executives at 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 having trouble recruiting for the demanding job.

“How do we compete with so many jobs available right now that aren’t shift work, that aren’t available 24/7, 365 days a year? Said Tina Buneta, director of Aurora’s public security communications department.

Call takers and dispatchers often leave the industry for better pay or more regular hours that do not include weekends and holidays, 911 managers said. Others are looking for less work. stressful that does not involve helping people deal with shootings, deaths and accidents.

Many call takers are also tired of being the butt of anger and misdirected yelling – a phenomenon that has become more common over the past year, said Andrew Dameron, manager of Denver 911. He attributed the change to the widespread anger and frustration caused by COVID. -19 pandemic and the restrictions intended to reduce it.

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

Staff issues

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

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

The lack of workers means that all dispatchers and call takers work at least eight mandatory hours of overtime each week. Dameron reworked the schedules, offered a hiring bonus of $ 1,200 and increased starting wages from $ 20 to $ 24 an hour. He also tries to help his employees connect with resources that help deal with the emotional stress of work.

A worker recently helped a woman who found her one-year-old child face down in the pool. Another helped a man deliver a baby in a bathtub.

“There is an emotional boost with this job,” said Dameron.

Many other call centers have increased salaries to attract more employees. Annual salaries for entry-level call takers in the Denver area range from $ 40,000 to $ 51,000, according to job listings.

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

All 911 centers use overtime to meet minimum staffing levels. But too much overtime risks 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-taking positions in the sheriff’s office are vacant, she said, and administrative staff take turns in headsets to help fill in the gaps.

“After working overtime for a long time, you start to tire yourself out,” she said.

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Emergency Communications Technician Andrea Rivera takes a call at the Denver County 911 call center on Wednesday, October 27, 2021.

Longer wait times for callers

Wait times are growing at several of the Denver-area 911 centers that are having staffing issues, causing some centers to no longer be aligned with best practices.

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

Colorado agencies often use this standard as a benchmark although 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 as of May and has remained non-compliant every month since then, data shows. 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 contacted with a call taker, although 10% of callers waited longer than a minute.

Dameron said call takers were working hard but there weren’t enough people to keep up with the volume of calls.

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

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

According to a report by the agency, call takers at the Jefferson County Communications Center answered 80% of all 911 calls in September in 15 seconds, below their target of 90%. The agency hasn’t hit that metric since May, and agency executives wrote in their monthly reports that staff losses combined with increased call volume caused the delays.

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

“We’re always doing analysis on how to improve ourselves,” Streeter said.

An academy class of a

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

“In all the years that I’ve recruited for them, I’ve never seen this before,” said Betty Wright, senior human resources associate at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, which recruited 911 workers. in the county for over five years.

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

In Aurora, a single woman was in the Spring 2021 academy class for new 911 call takers, Buneta said.

Sixty-four people applied to the academy in April. Only two of these candidates met the qualifications and underwent a background check. Only one woman passed the background check and eventually started working for the agency.

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

“It’s for a reason – we literally have life and death at our fingertips,” Buneta said. “You have to scrutinize. “

The staff shortage is an opportunity for change, Buneta said. Not only has this increased wages, but it will also force employers to see how they can better serve their workers. Perhaps the industry will find a solution to allow 911 employees to work from home, or governments will create new ways to redirect non-emergency calls from 911 call centers, she said.

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

“Historically, this position has been viewed more as a support service role and has not been fully appreciated nationally for first responders like us,” Buneta said. “We really have a direct line to life and death. “

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