Dispatching 911 calls is a tough job.
Dispatchers have to work long hours, in stressful conditions, talking to desperate people in dangerous situations. Even the work environment is dim; York County dispatchers keep the lights low in their dispatch center, to help them stay focused on multiple screens displaying critical information.
Gary Loflin, 911 director, is asking York County for money to hire two additional dispatchers to handle incoming calls – down from an initial request for four – plus a radio technician to keep the emergency communications system running.
Dispatchers need the extra support to avoid burnout from the sheer volume of calls to 911 every day, Loflin said.
“When we were created (as a separate county department) in 2009, we took on all EMS calls, all fire calls, all 911 calls, all sheriff’s office calls,” Loflin said. “Plus we get all Animal Control calls after 5 p.m., we get Red Cross calls after hours, we get DSS calls after hours. So we handle a lot of services that are not just 911.”
The proposed salary expense for the two dispatcher positions combined is $66,529, according to figures provided by the public safety communications department. The York County treasurer’s office estimates – with other benefits and equipment costs factored in – the positions should be budgeted at $100,181. The radio technician is budgeted at $65,205.
The emergency communications department usually has six or seven staffers in the communications room at any one time, depending on need and availability. They include two to answer incoming 911 calls, sometimes with a third available for overflow calls. Three others are dedicated to dispatching ambulances, fire engines and law enforcement, with another dispatcher who backs up law enforcement calls.
The majority of people in the 911 center at any given time aren’t answering calls from the public. Unless you’re calling with a true emergency, you’re liable to be put on hold.
“When someone calls in, you have to put them on hold to answer another one, and then you have to put them on hold to answer another one,” said Tracey Loss, assistant shift supervisor. “We’re getting worked to death.”
As the county’s population has grown, 911 calls have increased. In 2007, there were 292,591 calls made to 911 in York County. In 2013, there were 319,937, an increase of more than 20,000, or about 9 percent.
“On Dave Lyle 15 years ago, you had 4,000 cars, and now it’s more like 12,000,” Loflin said. “That not only increases the chance of someone having a wreck, but it means we get more phone calls when it does happen.”
Additionally, since the creation of a unified county 911 department, the number of dispatchers serving York County has decreased. Four former dispatchers for the York County Sheriff’s Office were transferred to front desk positions at the sheriff’s headquarters, while two who served the Tega Cay Police Department transitioned to full-time officers’ jobs.
Those remaining work in 12-hour shifts, either from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or overnight. The day shift and night shift switches rotations every 28 days.
“It’s extremely difficult,” said Loss, who dispatches ambulances while her husband works as an EMS responder. “Most of us don’t get enough sleep.”
Loflin said he hopes the two additional people he wants to add next year will give each shift a little more support. The number of personnel the department has available fluctuates as positions routinely open up. The department currently has six people in training as dispatchers, but that preparation takes six months.
Nationwide, Loflin estimates 25 to 30 percent of dispatchers leave the job every three years, although in York County he says it’s more like 21 to 22 percent.
“The biggest factor is staff turnover,” Loflin said. “These people take their lunch in a little room next door because they can’t leave. If somebody doesn’t bring something in, and somebody isn’t nice enough to go pick something up for them, they just don’t eat.”
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062