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ST. LOUIS – For the last year, the 911 dispatcher center for the city of Bridgeton covered the needs of its 11,000 residents with less than half of the dispatchers it needed.
As of this month, that center no longer exists. Instead, officials in the suburb 18 miles outside of St. Louis have decided to outsource 911 dispatch to St. Louis County under a three-year agreement approved in April. Rather than operate a center at half capacity, Bridgeton will pay the county $155,000 a year for the call services.
Ideally, there should be at least two dispatchers on each shift at the old call center. “We were only running one dispatch at night, the midnight shift and that’s not a very good thing to do,” Bridgeton Mayor Tim Briggs told the NewsHour.
Every second matters during an emergency, says April Heinze, 911 operational director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and not having enough people to answer calls means those seconds waiting add up quickly.
“Unfortunately, there are going to be days that you hear somebody take their last breath, that you provide CPR instructions and you hear a mother pleading for their child’s life, pleading for them to come back,” she said.
Bridgeton is one of many communities in Missouri and across the country that are experiencing a 911 dispatcher shortage. Some agencies cite pay, the toll on dispatchers’ mental health and long hours, while others attribute the shortage to a staffing struggle felt across industries in recent months. States such as California, Alabama and New Mexico have grappled with drops in 911 dispatcher staffing. With an estimated 240 million calls made to 911 in the United States each year, agencies are feeling the pressure to find a solution — and quickly. Heinze says the issue has to be addressed not only to also ensure people are getting the emergency services they need but also to make sure departments across the country are able to retain and recruit enough people to provide those services at all.
NENA standards currently say that of 911 calls that are answered, 90 percent should be answered within 15 seconds and 95 percent should be answered within 20 seconds.”
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But when there aren’t enough people on staff, reaching that threshold can be more difficult.
“Minutes are very valuable in terms of responding, a couple of minutes could mean a life in terms of a life-threatening situation,” Briggs said.
In St. Louis City, not far from the city of Bridgeton, the target for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is answering calls within 10 seconds. Department data shows only about 68 percent of 911 calls in the city in February hit that mark. That is the highest percentage for the city so far this year. In September, the city’s 10-second answer rate dropped as low as 51 percent. The department is down 32 dispatchers, along with two supervisors and two managers, according to a spokesperson.
The struggle to find employees is being felt by agencies across the state.
In a press release from the office of St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones in August 2021, the city pointed out that the current system was “in dire need of an overhaul” and that some callers were experiencing holds that lasted “several minutes.”
The Kansas City Police Department is seeing fewer people applying to become 911 dispatchers, period, according to training supervisor Tammy Bazzle .“In 2020, I had 220 applications that I received for this position, in 2021 it was down significantly to only 73,” Bazzle said. So far this year, she’s received 37 applications. .
In Bridgeton, Briggs said it was the lack of staffing at the city’s dispatch center that ultimately led to it closing. Ideally he said the department needed at least 10 dispatchers and some part-timers but the city only ended up budgeting for eight positions and even then they were only able to hire five.
The city “couldn’t find the personnel to get it done,” Briggs said.
Challenges of the job
The median pay per year in 2021 for public safety telecommunicators, which includes roles like 911 dispatchers and fire dispatchers, was $46,670, or $22.44 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics. According to the Municipal League of Metro STL, agencies in the St. Louis area have a base pay ranging from $31,000 to $51,000 a year The ceiling, according to that data, can be anywhere from around $53,000 to $67,000 a year.
Dispatchers in Kansas City typically work 10-hour shifts, but with staffing shortages in places like Kansas City and Bridgeton, Bazzle said many dispatchers are working an extra two hours, which she emphasized can be a lot of work especially when the call volume is increasing.
“Having a short amount or not enough people and the call volume is increasing. That means that it may take us a little bit longer to get to people who are calling,” she says. “We still strive to provide the best customer service possible but it definitely impacts both the community as well as our members because this is a really tough job.”
Delayed wait times have been reported in police departments from California to Pennsylvania. Sometimes all it takes is one period of shortages to set an agency back, Heinz with NENA said.
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“Once they get behind, it makes it a lot more difficult for them to get caught back up.”
911 centers such as the one in Kansas City are open 24/7, meaning someone always has to be there to answer the phone. “It’s oddball hours, and because your work may be that third shift, as they used to call it, midnight till seven in the morning or so,” Briggs said.
But round-the-clock availability only further affirms the need for dispatch centers to be fully staffed – bringing it back to the issue of pay. “The marketplace on this is just not huge,” Briggs said.
Another factor, Bazzle notes, is competition from other jobs in other industries. “We’re not only competing with other police agencies, we’re competing with various retailers, restaurants, because they are able to offer some things that are similar to what we offer,” she said, nodding to benefits such as more regular hours that help create better work-life balance.
And both Briggs and Bazzle say the toll 911 dispatch takes on employees’ mental health has to be considered as well.
“This is a very high-stress position. It’s very fast-paced and intense because of the amount of stress that our members endure regularly. Sometimes that does become overwhelming for some people and it’s just very emotionally and psychologically draining,” Bazzle said.
Continuously operating 24 hours daily under these conditions, she adds, highlights the importance of supporting dispatchers and making sure they have adequate training, which can differ depending on the agency.
“The total on the job training for the dispatcher position is 16 weeks, but for the initial six, they work directly with the trainer and a training partner on a primary zone to just understand the basics of dispatching,” Bazzle said.
Bigger picture, how 911 agencies are funded is another challenge, according to the National 911 Program, a federal organization that facilitates supporting 911 services across the country. Many agencies are funded using, in part, landline fees collected from people who still pay for landline phones, which the organization points out have fallen in the prominence of the cell phone and wireless devices.
In Missouri, the funding mechanism depends on the county. In the Kansas City area and surrounding counties, the 911 system is funded per capita. Each county collects a surcharge from both residential and commercial phone customers, collected when a customer pays their monthly bill. According to the Mid-America Regional Council, the coordinating agency for this region of Missouri’s 911 system, the 911 system costs more than $5 million each year.
Many systems across the country also rely on outdated technology, and localities have to find money for updates, too. Outsourcing to St. Louis County, according to Briggs, offers Bridgeton that opportunity. In February, the St. Louis County Council voted unanimously to push forward a bill that would allocate $4.2 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to upgrade the current dispatcher technology system.
Heinze has spent more than 24 years in emergency communications, starting as a 911 telecommunicator and later moving up to a director role before working in dispatch technology, eventually landing in nonprofit work.
She makes it her business to advocate for dispatchers and help establish standards for training and operations. Through that work, Heinze has seen shortages are “more prevalent in our larger 911 centers.”
“There’s a lot of things that kind of come into play when it comes to the need for staffing, first and foremost is getting the people in the door and trained,” she said.
Heinze acknowledged pay and benefits are an issue for many, but, as Bazzle also notes the pay along with the stress and emotional toll of that job combined with the effects of the ongoing pandemic have formed a “perfect storm.”
“It does have a tendency to be a bit of a domino effect when it comes to maintaining your staffing levels,” she added.
As for what can be done, Heinze believes there is no one single solution, but there are several good starting points for change.
“Identify the reason for the staffing shortage, if the reason is anything other than retirement, address the issues that are causing the shortage,” she said.
Creating employee retention plans, making sure pay and benefit packages are competitive with the current job market and not ruling out job bonuses, she points out, are all things she said matter when trying to keep people interested in what she calls a stressful but worthwhile job.
“It can be extremely rewarding to be able to deliver a baby, to be able to have the person revived because you helped them provide CPR,” Heinze said. “It i’s actually a very, very rewarding job.”
Gabrielle Hays is a Communities Reporter for the PBS NewsHour out of St. Louis.
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