Case Study: Mission Critical Partners Helps Tennessee County Resolve Its Staffing Issues

Client Success Story: Mission Critical Partners Helps Tennessee County Resolve Its Staffing Issues

The Hamblen County Emergency Communications District (ECD), located in the city of Morristown, was formed in 1990 as a fully consolidated agency. It provides 911 services to the city’s police department, the county’s sheriff’s department, law-enforcement agencies associated with a community college and state park, the city’s fire department, four volunteer fire departments, and an emergency medical services (EMS) agency that serves both the city and county. The ECD serves a total population of 64,468.

In 2022, the ECD’s 911 center handled about 130,000 emergency and non-emergency calls and dispatched about 71,000 calls for emergency service. It also provides text-to-911 service. In 2022, 96 percent of calls made to the 911 system were answered within 10 seconds or less, slightly better than the standard established by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). The average amount of time to process a call and dispatch the appropriate emergency response was under 60 seconds.

This performance was achieved despite the 911 center suffering from a chronic staffing shortage — typically two or three telecommunicator seats were open on the operations floor at any given moment. While the shortage hadn’t had an adverse effect on the 911 center’s ability to serve the public, it was placing tremendous strain on telecommunicators and supervisors, who had to work a lot of overtime to effectively cover shifts and keep center performance at a high level. The result was a considerable amount of burnout, low morale, and an ongoing exodus of personnel. “It was a continuous revolving door,” said Eric Carpenter, ECD director.

Carpenter and the ECD’s board of directors instinctively understood that the culture needed to change but weren’t sure how to go about it. Ultimately, Mission Critical Partners (MCP) was hired to provide the answers. The firm was well-known in the state for previous work, e.g., helping the Memphis Police Department create a state-of-the-art 911 center and update its aging computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. MCP also supported the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board (TECB) initiative to enhance cybersecurity by conducting baseline vulnerability assessments of communications networks and systems used by ECDs across the state.

“MCP had instant credibility,” Carpenter said.

What MCP Did

Even considering the factors identified above, Carpenter intuited that substandard compensation was the biggest factor by far in the 911 center’s inability to recruit, hire, and retain personnel. He shared a conversation that he had with one of his supervisors.

Carpenter recalled that the supervisor indicated that she still was passionate about her job, but that her salary was below a livable wage. She also said that some months she had to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table. She couldn’t even afford to take her young son to McDonald’s.

“She had tears in her eyes,” Carpenter said. “I knew that we needed to get to the root cause of this and then do something about it.”

Consequently, a comprehensive study was conducted to assess salaries and benefits. Part of the effort involved MCP subject-matter experts (SMEs) developing a confidential questionnaire that was distributed to all 911 center telecommunicators, supervisors, and directors, and then interviewing a cross-section of them that represented a wide range of experience levels and backgrounds.

“MCP worked hard to understand the situation,” Carpenter said. “They got the information they needed to conduct the assessment directly from the horse’s mouth.”

The SMEs then compared the compensation offered by Hamblen County ECD with other districts in the region, and those across the country that were similar in terms of population served and 911 call volume. They also looked at what private companies were offering, particularly call centers to achieve an apples-to-apples comparison, which was critical according to Carpenter.

“All of the 911 centers in our area are offering similar compensation,” he said. “We weren’t losing personnel to other centers, but we were losing them to the private sector.”

In addition, the SMEs thoroughly examined job descriptions and classifications. “They really needed to be updated,” said Stacy Banker, MCP’s operations domain lead, who led the compensation study. “A lot of elements were missing that would better reflect what they do and justify higher salaries.”


MCP delivered a comprehensive report in Month, 2023. While no significant issues existed regarding benefits, salaries were another matter altogether, as Carpenter suspected.

The report indicated that entry-level telecommunicators were making $14.89 per hour, about $30,000 annually. “You can make more money at a fast-food restaurant working fewer hours with a lot less stress,” Carpenter said. The situation wasn’t any better for seasoned telecommunicators, supervisors, and directors.

The result was that it was very difficult for the 911 center to recruit qualified telecommunicators. It was even more difficult to retain them. According to Carpenter, out of every dozen applications received by the ECD, only five candidates would agree to take the selection test — the National Dispatcher Selection Test — for this purpose. The others usually are scared off by the substandard compensation offered by the county. Of those who take the test, only two manage to pass it.

That’s only the beginning of the trouble. Only about one in every three candidates who make it to the probationary period survive it. Of the survivors, their employment typically ranges from 18 months to three years. “It’s a struggle to get them in the door in the first place, and then they don’t stay around for very long,” Carpenter said.

The compensation study contained numerous recommendations, with the most important being that salaries should increase significantly. According to Carpenter, MCP’s thoroughness immediately got the attention of the ECD’s board of directors.

“The amount of detail was amazing,” Carpenter said. “MCP showed how they got to every conclusion and recommendation. The board said, ‘We’re saying yes to this because of the detail — we know you did this right, and we can’t deny any of it.’”


What the board said yes to was a significant across-the-board salary increase for entry-level telecommunicators, seasoned telecommunicators, deputy directors, and the director. Entry-level telecommunicators now start at $18 per hour, an increase of 21 percent. The impact on morale, recruitment, and retention has been startling. Every full-time position now is filled, though two part-time positions still exist to fill scheduling gaps. In contrast, a neighboring county with similar circumstances currently has nine open full-time positions.

This decision increased the ECD’s annual budget by about $200,000. The district is funded through a combination of 911 surcharge fees and user agency fees based on a formula developed by the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS). The ECD’s board of directors decided to raise the user agency fees to cover the budget increase. And they’re committed to the salary increases for the long haul — according to Carpenter, user agencies that balk at the new fee have been told by the board to expect a reduction in services. More importantly, they’ve also been told that increasing salaries will result in more and better qualified telecommunicators and supervisors, which in turn will enhance the service provided by the 911 center, to both the agencies and the citizens they serve.

“It’s like the clouds parted and it has been amazing to watch,” Carpenter said. “It’s difficult to put into words how great this is. And the impact that MCP had was amazing.”

Topics: Case Studies

Posted on May 13, 2024

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