After a year that included a tornado, earthquake, hurricane and, most recently, the arrival of 10-digit dialing, staffers at the Raleigh-Wake County 911 center are familiar with high-stress situations.
The next year may not be as eventful, but the center needs more manpower to keep pace with ever-increasing demands, local officials say.
The city plans to add seven new positions to the 911 center in the upcoming budget, part of an effort to maintain adequate response times as the department awaits a new, larger facility.
No positions have been added for the past three years, leaving a front-line staff of 81 dispatchers, telecommunicators and supervisors to juggle the burdens of a growing county, says Barry Furey, director of the 911 center.
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The proposed additions will be a priority as the City Council enters budget talks next month, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in an interview.
“The most important thing we do is keep people safe,” she said. “And it all comes through that 911 center. I want to hear the details, but all of us realize how vital that is.”
The dispatchers work in a bunker under City Hall. Designed for eight dispatchers 30 years ago, the room now squeezes in 20 consoles. The starting salary for a call-taker is $31,100, Furey said.
The center operates as a city department, but Wake County and town emergency agencies are billed based on how many calls are dispatched in their service areas.
The city is weighing plans for a new 911 center on a site near the Beltline northeast of downtown.
In the meantime, misdials and hang-ups related to the new 919 dialing requirements are adding a new layer of demand.
On March 31, Raleigh police were dispatched to 103 incident sites after callers erroneously dialed 911 and hung up. It was the first day of mandatory 10-digit dialing in the Triangle. All local calls in the 919 area now require an area code.
The problem worsened with the beginning of the business week. The next day, the 911 center received 195 erroneous calls, five times the normal volume.
The center has taken steps to reduce call traffic. New software delivers instant information to police, EMS and fire crews, eliminating the need for time-consuming phone calls between dispatchers and emergency responders.
Wrecks and road delays are updated online, reducing the number of calls from the public and area media outlets trying to find out about traffic problems.
Together, the two strategies have resulted in 50,000 fewer calls, Furey said. The center handles 1 million calls per year.
“We have pretty much run the table in terms of things we can do,” he said.
When Furey arrived in 2006, 55 percent of calls came from conventional telephones. Now, 72 percent of calls come from wireless devices.
The result can bring “cluster calls,” a rush of 911 traffic from motorists or neighbors who see a big wreck on the highway or smoke pouring from a building.
“You have to process each one individually and make sure you’re not missing something,” Furey said.
Emergency call center employees suffer from notoriously high burnout rates.
Nationally, just 3 percent of employees who begin their careers as dispatchers retire from the job, according to the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials. Many blame stress, low pay and long hours.
Time-saving strategies, Furey says, are no longer sufficient.
“It came to a point this year where there’s really not too much more we can do.”