The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
Durham firefighters reported at least 46 dispatching errors or concerns this year, after staffing shortages at the city’s 911 center forced Raleigh operators to answer nearly 1 in 10 incoming calls.
There were 26 vacant positions out of a total of 60 at the Durham Emergency Communications Center, a city spokesperson told The News & Observer this month. Three of 18 call-taking positions were vacant, she said.
Since December, about 9% of Durham’s calls have been routed to the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center, according to the city. Calls ring for about 30 seconds in Durham before automatically transferring to Raleigh.
“It’s intolerable,” said professor Charles Jennings, director of the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It’s highly unusual that a center would be unable to respond to that high a percentage of their calls.”
Jennings oversaw emergency communications and response in White Plains, New York, for over five years.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected 911 center staffing across the nation, he said Durham has “an extraordinary vacancy level.”
“There are going to be additional pressures placed on those limited personnel, which could lead to errors in dispatch, or an inability to complete the full range of services that would normally be expected under conditions of normal staffing,” he added.
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel could not pinpoint why Durham is experiencing such a severe staffing shortage compared to other 911 centers, but he said it’s a “top priority” for City Manager Wanda Page.
In her manager’s newsletter Friday, Page said the majority of Durham’s 911 calls are answered in 10 seconds or less by Durham call takers, and “with new staff coming on board in the coming weeks, we intend to wrap up our partnership with Raleigh and resume answering 100% of our calls.”
The city is recruiting for four full-time certified training officers and hiring back retirees and former employees in a part-time capacity, Page noted.
Recruiting and training a call-taker can take three to four months said Randy Beeman, the director of Durham’s center. The 911 center had eight staff members in training as of May, according to a Durham spokesperson.
Beeman, who spoke to The N&O earlier this month, did not respond to phone and email messages over the past week.
Durham firefighters’ concerns
In January, the Durham Fire Department created an internal form to track rising errors and delays, said Bill Towner, a spokesman for the Professional Fire Fighters of Durham Local 668 and former captain in the department.
The N&O received copies of all responses to the form Monday. Of the 46 incidents this year, 19 explicitly refer to the Raleigh- Wake center.
Fifteen responses were categorized as “alternate routing,” while nine were flagged as timeliness concerns by those reporting. Seven were categorized as missing or incorrect addresses by those reporting.
“While I have no comparative information to share, it is my professional opinion that you would see many similar concerns in any jurisdiction that had records similar to the ones we are providing,” Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said in an emailed statement Monday.
The Durham center received nearly 86,000 calls between January and April, he added.
But Towner said that while 46 concerns have been reported, Local 668 believes the actual number of delays or other issues may be higher.
“In order to report a concern, the firefighters have to know that there was an issue during some part of the call-taking or dispatch process,” he said. That information is not always clear to them, he explained.
‘Every second counts’
In one documented instance, a firefighter said an incorrect address caused a 20-minute delay. In another, a firefighter said a call routed through Raleigh came without an apartment number, delaying response around 10 minutes, when they learned the person had already been taken to the hospital.
Towner said crucial information is being lost or delayed in the transfer between the centers.
It is normal for some low-priority calls to be held for a time before anyone is dispatched, he said.
“But if you’re talking about difficulty breathing, an advanced life support medical emergency, a fire related emergency, a robbery or burglary in progress — anything like that, then absolutely every second counts,” he said.
Frustration among Raleigh staff
Dominick Nutter, the emergency communications director of the Raleigh- Wake center, said it’s not the first time they’ve supported other agencies.
“There have been times, for example, during a storm, during a hurricane we have supported New Hanover (County) to assist them,” he said. “As one of the largest 911 centers in the state, there are times that we do go out and assist other agencies.”
Durham tells Raleigh when they are short-staffed, but he said he doesn’t know how often that has happened since the call routing began.
“This has been our way of providing mutual aid and assistance to a community in need,” said Raleigh City Manager Marchell Adams-David. She said Raleigh plans to stop taking Durham calls at the end of June.
From Dec. 8 to April 30, Raleigh has taken 9,433 calls from Durham, Nutter said. That’s less than 5% of Raleigh’s calls during that period.
“Our team understands it’s important work, and they know that there are people who need help,” he said.
But there is still some frustration among employees, Nutter said.
When a call comes from Durham, 911 staffers have less detailed mapping because it’s outside their regular jurisdiction, he said.
“Someone [calling] might not know where they are, and that is where the accuracy issue comes in,” he said.
In these cases, Raleigh 911 staffers have to type in a person’s phone number to a supplemental program called RapidSOS that provides some location information. But the system doesn’t work with all phones.
Some 911 employees have also used Google Maps as an alternative, Nutter said.
‘Emergencies don’t take a break for a pandemic’
For an arrangement that has lasted this long, Jennings said the current system, which requires Durham to enter the call into its system before dispatching someone to the scene, is “absolutely undesirable.”
“It should fundamentally call into question the wisdom of the current arrangements, and the hardware technology that’s being used to connect those two centers,” he said. “And if they’re going to fundamentally cooperate in this manner going forward, then this should be an automated process.”
Towner said he thinks the staffing shortage shows “poor planning” on the part of the city.
“Emergencies don’t take a break for a pandemic,” he said, adding Durham should have been hiring more aggressively in the past year. “In fact, calls for services increase.”
But Jennings cautioned against blaming any one party or cause.
“These are complicated issues, and as gratifying as it is to find a person to rake over the coals, this sounds like a systemic failure,” Jennings said. “It is certainly a serious problem that needs to be remedied with extraordinary measures.”
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