ASHEBORO NC – Recently the Randolph Hub highlighted how the state wide paramedic shortage, increased call volume, and trouble hiring and retaining staff is overwhelming Randolph County EMS. It’s an article that is worth reading. The headline read “Time for EMS to call 911?”, but perhaps the next headline should read “911: Don’t call us, we’re busy too.”
The Randolph County 9-1-1 center is also overwhelmed as they take on an ever increasing number of calls. That increase is not just COVID-19 calls says Director of Randolph County Emergency Services Donovan Davis in an email, “we’ve seen an increase in fire service, law enforcement, EMS, and rescue calls. These include burglary, suspicious persons/vehicles, larceny, assault, chest pain, strokes, seizure, motor vehicle accidents, overdoses, harassment, animal problems, welfare checks, loud noise disturbances, etc.”
To handle the increasing number of calls Major Heaton, Director of the County’s 9-1-1 division says staffing is the answer. “As of today, we are 4 full-time employees short. Two open call-takers, and one vacancy on each night shift.” Staff have been hired to fill those positions but they still need to complete 4 to 5 more months of training.
“It is 8 computer screens, two keyboards, three mice, a foot pedal on the floor, and around 10 separate programs to operate fluidly. You have to know how to handle a cat in a tree, or a vehicle on fire. A person with a nose bleed or a person who has been shot.” says Heaton. Telecommunicators often have to handle answering calls and talking on the radio at the same time. They have to hear and respond to audio from two places at once. 9-1-1 and other callers they hear in their headsets, and while they are on the phone, if units in the field key up and speak to them on the radio, they’ll hear that audio on a speaker located on their desk and respond to them by pressing a foot pedal on the flood that mutes the mic for the phone and allows them to respond on the radio. Heaton said calling the job difficult is an understatement and that level of difficulty is one of the reasons it can take up to 6 months to train new telecommunicators. “The only way to hone those skills is to have a skilled, patient, and detailed trainer sit beside them and guide them through this work,” said Heaton.
The last time Randolph County Commissioners approved new 9-1-1 call taker positions was back in 2017. That year 9-1-1 answered 91,698 emergency calls and call volumes have grown every year. This year staff have already answered more than 101,000 emergency calls and more than 75,000 administrative calls. Those numbers have already surpassed last year’s call volume, and there are still two and a half months left to go.
Major Heaton says the staff are stressed, burned-out, and overwhelmed and staff turnover hasn’t helped either. Since 2017, the 9-1-1 center has lost a combined 42.5 years of experience. “With our turnover we have had to tighten down on vacations, which hasn’t helped.” Heaton says they have requested more staff to meet the increasing number of calls. “We’ve asked for 4 telecommunicators in budget years; 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21 – And 8 telecommunicators this June for 2021-2022.” None of those requests were approved.
CBS 17 out of Raleigh reported on 9-1-1 operators being overworked and short staffed in Durham and Spectrum news highlighted the same issues in Guilford County. A google search of “911 operator shortage” returns hundreds of stories all across the U.S. all facing the same issue. The National Emergency Number Association recently reported that nationally they are seeing 9-1-1 centers having a 15 to 20 percent employee turnover rate.
In an email, Randolph County Commissioner Hope Haywood said that “the pandemic hit and has led to a nationwide shortage of paramedics and 911 operators. The burnout and resulting early retirement of workers is something we could not have anticipated.” Haywood says that the Board of Commissioners is aware of the situation in Emergency Services and that they are looking at possible solutions to both retention of current employees, and recruitment of new ones.
Davis says the County Commissioners have been extremely supportive, “because of their support and forward-thinking, we now have EMS bases that provide service in the southern parts of the county. We have new medical equipment, a new headquarters facility including a new and larger state-of-the-art 9-1-1 center, emergency operations center, and training space – and, we were able to construct the much-needed morgue.”
That new larger and state of the art 9-1-1 center was built as part of the Emergency Services Headquarters which was completed in 2017. The old 911 center has been kept up to date and has been able to be put to good use. Not only does it serve as a backup to the current center but employees who have had a possible COVID-19 exposure are able to work at the old center. Heaton says they have also been able to train new staff there allowing them to get hands on with the same equipment.
Davis says emergency services continue to have ongoing discussions with the Board of Commissioners and the County Manager in order to find the best ways to address these issues, including staffing. Davis says he is confident that these and other issues will be addressed appropriately over the coming months.
There is no quick fix to the strain that increased call volumes have placed on both Randolph County EMS and the 9-1-1 center. Approving, hiring, and training new staff takes time and money which has to come from somewhere. The Board of Commissioners has already been asked to look into adding new ambulances and crews and hiring bonuses to help with the nationwide Paramedic shortage. They also have to consider how to help retain the staff in both EMS and 9-1-1.