Three Charlotte-area 911 centers are forced to rely on other police departments to fill critical dispatch positions.
While Cabarrus and Union counties have not had staffing issues, Mecklenburg, Gaston and Lincoln counties have faced an ongoing staff shortage during the pandemic. Some counties have offered more generous benefits to draw in applicants.
This comes as the City of Charlotte has made changes to its 911 program, adding mental health professionals as respondents.
“Everybody’s feeling this impact of lack of employee employees or lack of folks pursuing other jobs,” Bill Gibbs, director of Lincoln County 911, said. “I mean, this is nerve-wracking.”
In Lincoln County, staffing shortages and high turnover rates were instigated by the pandemic. Normally, Lincoln 911 has a staff of 25 people, who answer calls and are dispatched. As of June 22, just 19 of those positions were filled, leaving six vacant. One person is currently in training, but because 911 telecommunicators are also dispatchers, the process is intensive and takes six to eight months.
During peak hours, Lincoln 911 aims to keep six telecommunicators available, “but that’s a struggle when you’re down so many people,” Gibbs said.
Administrative officers at Lincoln 911 have had to step in and fill those vacant positions.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police is currently short 44 telecommunicators, department spokeswoman Amanda Aycock said. CMPD is allocated 126 telecommunicators, but the department is allowed to hire 20 more during busier times of the year because of itslengthy training process. This means at full capacity, CMPD can employ 146 telecommunicators.
“We have made schedule modifications to ensure coverage during the busiest times, posted overtime to employees to work longer than normal shifts, and we have pulled support staff from their job duties to answer 911 calls and ensure someone was at the other end of that line during an emergency,” Aycock said.
CMPD offered referral and recruitment bonuses throughout the last fiscal year, and it plans to do the same this year.
Calls to 911 are answered by CMPD, which sends them to call centers at the Charlotte Fire Department or Medic when necessary.
Medic, Mecklenburg County’s EMS agency, is short 13 staff members, although four trainees will soon join them. There are currently 35 telecommunicators on duty for Medic, but its ideal number is 48, aid Grace Nelson, PR Supervisor for Medic.
Like its counterparts, Medic’s shortage began with the pandemic.
Other counties are struggling, too. Gaston County has increased the pay for 911 dispatchers from $16 an hour to $19.88 an hour to attract more employees, The Gaston Gazette reported. The county’s call volume has risen, but since the pandemic, it also has experienced a decline in 911 staff.
Pineville Police Chief Mike Hudgins said the Mecklenburg town’s 911 service has not been fully staffed in four years.
“We know it’s a really critical position,” Hudgins said. “We got a lot of contingencies in place to make sure we can staff that critical function of the police department.”
Hudgins said he wishes more qualified individuals would apply for the jobs. He believes that in conjunction with generous benefits, the “honorable” nature of the job makes it a compelling choice for those interested in public service, he said.
“911 is a rewarding career,” Gibbs said. “It is stressful, but there are great rewards that come out of it … I think every director could vouch for that.”