MCP in the News: A Look at 9-1-1 ECC Staffing Challenges
This article originally appeared in MissionCritical Communications and can be viewed here.
Never has it been more difficult for emergency communications centers (ECCs) to function well.
One challenge is that many ECCs are making do with outdated legacy 9-1-1 systems that lack the advanced capabilities of broadband-enabled next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) systems. The legacy systems are capable of handling 9-1-1 calls and dispatching emergency response, but little else. Exacerbating the situation is that many legacy systems are approaching or have reached the end of life. When this occurs, maintenance becomes much more challenging because vendors stop supporting the system, and replacement parts often are in short supply, if they are available at all.
Another challenge concerns a chronic lack of funding that affects ECCs from coast to coast, especially in areas with lower populations and thus smaller tax bases. Many ECCs eke by, and some barely have enough money to provide essential services and keep legacy systems operational, much less upgrade to NG 9-1-1 systems. The practice of diverting money collected via 9-1-1 fees to other purposes worsens the challenge, which still occurs far too often, mainly because little incentive exists to stop it.
Arguably the most severe challenge impacting ECCs today, though, concerns a nationwide staffing shortage that has reached a crisis stage. The deficit has created pressures for ECC officials to cover shifts and additional stresses for 9-1-1 telecommunicators. Due to staffing shortages, many often are forced into working mandatory overtime to cover personnel gaps or unable to take time off when needed or desired, especially for telecommunicator health and well-being.
Here's an example. In 2018, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city's ECC was authorized to have 180 telecommunicators (call-takers and dispatchers), but only 105 were on staff. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) standard states that 9-1-1 calls are to be answered within 10 seconds 90 percent of the time during the "busy hour," the hour with the highest call volume. Due to the staffing shortage, San Francisco's ECC reportedly met this standard only 74 percent of the time. Unfortunately, this is not a unique scenario. This situation is exacerbated in small ECCs, such as those with one to two positions, which comprise nearly 80 percent of the 9-1-1 community.
This article, the first in a two-part series, examines the root causes of the staffing shortage. The following article in the series will offer suggestions for addressing it.
Funding. The lack of money flowing into ECCs affects technology upgrades and replacements and the ability of centers to be competitive with the private sector concerning personnel recruitment and retention. Compounding this situation are elected officials prioritizing the needs of field responders over those of the 9-1-1 community. Traditionally, the private sector has offered candidates compensation, such as salaries, bonuses and benefits, far more attractive than what the public sector provides, which may be even more valid today. For example, we know of one ECC that has a car manufacturer in its footprint that for a time offered a low-cost vehicle lease as a signing bonus to anyone willing to work in its call center.
Lack of Proper Recognition. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in its Standard Occupational Classification System, classifies telecommunicators under the category of "office and administrative support occupations." This classification includes mail clerks, secretaries, office clerks, typists, meter readers, mail carriers, file clerks, bank tellers, gambling cage workers and school bus monitors. None of these workers help to save lives daily as telecommunicators do. This classification makes it more difficult for ECCs to justify higher compensation for telecommunicators. Moreover, potential candidates often view the role of telecommunicator as a low-wage job and not as a career that offers upward mobility, which hinders recruitment. A contributing factor is the lack of an effective organizational structure that provides an upward mobility path, especially in smaller ECCS. As a result, telecommunicators often leave smaller centers for larger centers to fulfill their career objectives.
It is easy to understand how this situation occurred. When 9-1-1 service was launched in the U.S. in 1968, secretaries in law-enforcement agencies often answered emergency calls for assistance and then passed their notes to emergency responders. This background explains why the profession was initially classified with other clerical-type disciplines.
Five decades later, the 9-1-1 profession is as different from its origin as night is different from day. Today's telecommunicator still fields emergency calls but also is working with sophisticated technologies such as CAD, geographic information systems (GIS) and automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems. Telecommunicators use such technology and industry-standard protocols to direct emergency response and provide law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) with situational awareness that makes them better at their jobs and keeps them safer.
Speaking of situational awareness, 9-1-1 telecommunicators have skill sets and training that enable them to notice subtleties during an emergency call that could mean the difference between life and death. The result is that telecommunicators are on the front lines of saving lives, which is the most substantial rationale for reclassification.
An example would be when telecommunicators provide prearrival medical instructions, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, to a mother whose child was found unconscious in a swimming pool. Even before paramedics/EMTs leave the station, getting the emergency response started saves precious time and often is the difference between life and death.
Congress seems to be aware of the differences between today's telecommunicator and clerical-type workers. In April 2021, the "Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services Act of 2021" (911 SAVES Act) was introduced into the Senate and House. The legislation, which appears to have bipartisan support, would reclassify telecommunicators under the category of "protective service occupations," which is how law enforcement and fire/rescue personnel are classified. The rationale is that telecommunicators are the first of the first responders. While this is encouraging and long overdue, it should be noted that the same bill was introduced in 2019 and died on the vine.
An Incredibly Stressful Environment. About 240 million 9-1-1 calls are placed annually in the U.S., or more than 657,000 every day. These calls require telecommunicators to act and make decisions, and every action and decision could mean the difference between life and death. That by itself creates a lot of stress. Now add to that long shifts, mandatory overtime and the occasional traumatic outcome, and you get an environment that drives personnel away. Worse is that the environment often leads them to avoid the profession altogether. This is a crucial factor in the recruitment and retention challenges that many, if not most, ECCs are encountering today. Again, the undeniable fact is that telecommunicators are the first of the first responders, and without them, emergency response would be slower and much more challenging.
Negative Impacts of Social Media. The stressful environment sometimes leads ECC personnel to vent their frustrations via social media platforms. The result is that working in a 9-1-1 center often comes across as a wholly negative experience, which makes recruitment far more complex. Most telecommunicators do not intend to torpedo the center's recruitment efforts, but the impact is the same.
The “Silver Tsunami.” The term "baby boomer" applies to anyone born between 1946 and 1964. There have been a lot of baby boomers, about 73 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And by 2030, all of the baby boomers will be 65 or older, which means that many are leaving the workforce. The Census Bureau estimates that about 10,000 people cross the age threshold every day. It further is estimated that about 365 Americans retire every hour. Consequently, the "silver tsunami" promises to exacerbate the staffing shortages that many centers already are experiencing.
When someone working for an ECC retires, the consequences can be dire. The result is a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge regarding the 9-1-1 center's operations and technologies. This is especially true concerning center officials and shift supervisors but also applies to telecommunicators. An ECC is not an environment where a new person tossed into the deep end should be expected to start swimming immediately. It takes years to acquire the knowledge needed to perform effectively in an ECC.
Think of it this way. Who would you rather perform your open-heart surgery? A surgeon fresh off their residency or one that has a decade of experience? The answer is clear. The retirement scenario would be less problematic if 9-1-1 centers had documentation regarding workflows, standard operating procedures, and policies, but they often don't, especially smaller centers.
The staffing shortage affecting the 9-1-1 community is real. It is severe and has been made more profound by the COVID-19 pandemic. We're aware of one ECC where 80 percent of its telecommunicators contracted the virus. Fortunately, strategies and tactics exist that can alleviate at least some of the pressures that ECCs are experiencing, if not eliminate them. We will explore these strategies in the next article in the series.
Bonnie Maney is a senior consultant for Mission Critical Partners (MCP), a consulting and managed services firm that serves public safety and justice organizations. Email her at BonnieManey@MissionCriticalPartners.com.