(TNS) — It was just before 8 p.m. May 25, and Renae Coolidge was just hanging up her phone at the Frederick County Emergency Communications Center after helping a resident set up a burn permit. In the seat next to her, fellow 911 call-taker Kim Woolcock gave her a sympathetic smile, having just finished taking a similar call herself.
“There’s going to be a lot of those this week,” Woolcock said, explaining that a countywide burn ban will go into effect June 1 and last until Aug. 31, meaning that any farmers who need to burn waste would likely call in.
But a truly quiet night is an anomaly at the ECC, where life-or-death emergencies are only a three-digit phone call away. A minute later, Woolcock was talking to a man who had just witnessed a serious crash on the exit ramp from Interstate 70 onto South East Street/Md. 85.
“We think he might be inebriated, like, drunk,” the caller said, his words coming quickly with anxiety. “Because he flew up that ramp and he must have been going almost 100 mph. Honestly, I don’t know how he got through that intersection without getting killed.”
Her voice remaining calm, Woolcock quickly got the man to focus, gleaning important information from him as she typed up the call. As she was writing it, the information was also being fed to her colleagues dispatching police and rescue personnel to the scene.
The ECC handles 1,200 calls on an average day, said Jen Stahley, an ECC manager. The center’s minimum staffing level varies between eight and 12 employees depending on the time of day, but managers like Stahley and LeighAnn Tepper say they prefer 17 to be comfortable during the busier times of the day.
The ECC’s staff has also consistently failed to grow to match the call volume. In 2013, the ECC took 301,000 phone calls and dispatched 160,000 calls with 43 staff working the floor, according to records. By last year, the numbers had increased to 470,000 calls and 277,000 dispatches, but the number of employees had reached only 50.
“Do I think we have enough? No. Not when we get high call volume and not at the rate at which the county is growing,” Stahley said. “We did a study about three years ago, and at that time, we were about 24 people understaffed. And that was before all of this development we’ve been seeing bringing more people in.”
Stahley said she is worried it will take something going wrong in a dramatic way in order to persuade county leaders to prioritize getting the center’s staff back up to an acceptable level.
“I don’t want to see that happen. None of us do,” Stahley said. “My goal is, at the end of the day, everybody gets to go home. My employees, the first responders, the callers, everyone.”
Some mistakes are already happening in the form of missed or dropped 911 calls, with ECC Director John Woelfel estimating in a recent budget hearing before the County Council that about 60 calls to 911 went unanswered over the course of six months.
Jack Markey, director of the county’s Emergency Management Division, emphasized in that same meeting that the rate was very low and that most missed calls result from a large number of people calling about the same incident.
Call-takers always call the numbers back promptly just in case, Markey added.
Missed calls aren’t the only problem facing the ECC. In its plea for funding to add 20 more positions in the most recent budget, Woelfel and others cited the number of staff who have left the center.
“The request for the 20 new hires was mostly related to relieving the workload, overtime, allowing staff to use their leave, and being able to take a few breaks throughout the day and mostly help with the high turnover,” Woelfel said. “Most leaving the job on their exit interviews are citing the heavy call volume with no breaks and [not] getting [time] off when they need [time] off.”
The high turnover leads to forced overtime, creating more stress on the remaining staff. That strain can perpetuate even more turnover and adds a financial burden.
In fiscal 2014, the county paid ECC employees $195,509 in overtime. Alarmed by the high amount, the center tried to use comp leave and limiting leave to reduce overtime costs in the next fiscal year, Woelfel said.
While the measures seemed to work — overtime costs fell to $116,680 in fiscal 2015 — the plan was quickly dropped when managers noticed the effect it was having on call-takers and dispatchers, Woelfel said.
“We found it greatly increased the stress and abandoned it halfway through the year,” Woelfel said.
Overtime pay was up to $183,435 in fiscal 2016 and was estimated to hit $205,000 in fiscal 2017, according to Woelfel’s data.
In spite of this and the ECC’s requests for more staff, the center was approved for only eight more positions in last year’s budget and will receive just five new hires in the proposed fiscal 2019 budget.
Asked about the difference in the request and the budget, County Executive Jan Gardner expressed sympathy with the conditions at the ECC, but she was also pragmatic.
“We do not have enough money every year to meet all the demands that we have,” she said. “I mean, I get tens of millions of dollars’ worth of requests every year beyond what I can fund, and they are all legitimate requests.”
Gardner said she tries her best to balance every request and, when she can’t fund one fully, she said she will at least try to “make progress” on solving the problem.
“Obviously we need to continue to make sure that we give people time off and the ability to take breaks when they need them,” Gardner said. “Breaks are a big deal, if they have a very difficult or emotional call, good protocol is we get to take a break and walk away from that for a little while before you come back and take another call. And we haven’t been able to provide that.”
Stress also takes a toll when things get really busy, such as during the most recent flooding in Frederick on May 15 and 16, when calls were nonstop and every line was busy.
During the flood from May 15 through May 16, the ECC handled 3,000 administrative calls and 884 emergency 911 calls. Staff also dispatched 2,453 calls to first responders, according to Woelfel’s data.
On the reverse side of the turnover issue is the amount of time it takes to get employees up to speed with the stressful, demanding environment of the ECC, Stahley said.
Employees start out as call-takers and spend at least a year doing that before they are allowed to start dispatching calls to first responders, where they have to choose between fire and police. That means it takes take a minimum of three years to be cross-trained in call-taking and fire and police dispatching.
“Realistically, we like to have everyone cross-trained to work all disciplines in about four years,” Stahley said.
The training is important because the job is so demanding, but it’s hard to keep up if too many older staffers leave because of work stress. The job is also becoming harder to sell to new applicants.
“When we came on 12 years ago, the candidate pool was 600 people,” Tepper said. “Our current pool has been open since February and will be closing in May and we’ll be lucky if we get 300 people.”
Of those, even fewer, likely around 50, will make it to an interview, Stahley said. Some candidates are unqualified, but many candidates drop out or move to other jobs by the time the ECC has completed all of the necessary background checks needed to work in such a delicate field.
“Plus we get yelled at a lot,” Stahley added with a laugh. “It takes a calm person, and a person who has a lot of empathy.”
A few minutes later on the other side of the room, Coolidge was on the line with a man who called to say he was depressed and having suicidal thoughts.
Within seconds, Coolidge had confirmed that the man had not hurt himself, but let him know that an officer was on the way to his address to check on him. Concerned, the call-taker was polite but insistent when the man stopped responding to her.
“Just let me know if anything changes, all right? ... Sir?” Coolidge said, a slight look of relief passing over her face as the man replied on the other end. “I’ll stay on the line with you until the officer arrives, OK? Have you been outside today? ... Yeah, the weather was nice, wasn’t it?”
After the call, Coolidge talked it over briefly explaining her approach to such calls, which happen quite regularly and require a deft touch.
“I try not to upset them, you want to reassure them and at the same time make sure that they’re not going to harm themselves,” she said. “He wasn’t a big talker, so I wanted to try and keep him engaged and —”
Coolidge was cut off by the sounds of a new call coming in. Smiling apologetically, she reached up to send the call through to her headset.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to take this.”
Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.
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