Greenville County, SC, USA, June, 2018 -- When you call 911 in Greenville County, routinely the dispatcher who answers must make a quick and potentially life-threatening decision: Answer your call for emergency assistance or help a sheriff's deputy with information about someone speeding.
"Potentially, you could be choosing between a caller who has a baby choking versus a deputy who has a traffic stop. I don't think I should ever be choosing which one to listen to," said Stormie Satterfield, a dispatcher at the Greenville County Sheriff's Office 911 center. "As somebody calling in as a Greenville County citizen, I would feel very discouraged to ever call back."
And when things are working properly, dispatchers can actually hear the deputy or you on the other end, but not always.
It's a scenario that plays out every day at the center that is the first response for the roughly 500,000 people in Greenville County who at any moment, could need emergency assistance. The 911 center is fraught with problems, from a severe shortage of staffers to old and faulty equipment unable to handle the area's growing population.
Interim Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown is shining light on the dire need for improvements to the center since taking office in April. He has suggested hiring a temp agency to help fill gaps in coverage.
And with Greenville County's budget approval for six new call-taker positions to open up this July, adding to the 12 positions that are already vacant, the openings show how deficiencies have kept the center from growing.
The staff shortage is a longstanding problem, according to the center's director, David Deitz. He said high stress, training standards and long hours paired with outdated equipment has left the center struggling to retain staff. Out of the 42 call-taker positions, 12 are vacant. Soon there will be 18 vacancies when the six added positions open up.
County Administrator Joe Kernell called the staffing problem "growing pains" since new positions are opening up. But Deitz said it's a constant struggle to get them filled. Finding qualified candidates with the right set of skills is a challenge, he said.
About 10 staffers work the center during any 12-hour shift. Based on the county's population size, Deitz said there should be at least 17 working at any given time.
National standards urge call centers to answer 911 calls within 10 seconds 90 percent of the time, according to the National Emergency Number Association. Greenville County's call center doesn't meet the standard. Only about 83 percent of calls are answered within 10 seconds, according to the center.
Some 911 callers end up hanging up, so dispatchers have to call them back to inquire about the emergency, said Satterfield, who has been a dispatcher there for five years.
So far this year, 7,114 calls were considered abandoned, meaning the caller hangs up before their call is answered. There are about 1,300 abandoned calls per month, according to the call center.
There's no national standard for abandoned calls since there are too many factors that play into when and why a call is dropped, according to the National Emergency Number Association.
"The inherent challenge is why there are abandonments," said Christopher Carver, director of 911/PSAP operations for the association, which is based in Virginia. "Is it because it is taking too long for a center to answer calls or is it because of an abnormally large number of "'short-calls' or mis-dials — where a caller 'butt-dials' and hangs up prior to the call being answered?"
Satterfield said the call volume often outpaces the ability for the smaller staff to field calls quickly.
"It happens a lot," she said. "We try to answer them within the first 10 seconds, but there's just not enough people in here to do that. And when you do answer a call you're constantly having to tell people to hold on."
Since the 911 center for the Sheriff's Office is considered a primary public safety answering point, or PSAP, they field all 911 calls placed in the county unless its within another municipality. The call center processes about 700,000 calls per year. As of late May, the center had processed 227,685 calls. About 1,200 calls are handled each 12-hour shift.
Brown, who was named interim sheriff in April after suspended Sheriff Will Lewis was indicted in charges of obstruction of justice and misconduct in office, addressed the Greenville County Council for the first time in May. The center's concerns were a main focus and within that, manpower was the priority.
Carver, of the National Emergency Number Association, said staffing is a problem nationally. He said centers need to look to successful centers to see that efforts like recruitment and social media campaigns are crucial.
"For one, it's an incredibly high stress job. And two, there's a relatively small pool of people that enjoy the job and who are successful at the job," Carver said. "911 is one of the top three brands in the world and yet not everybody is aware of the system behind it. A lot of times people don't know of the job that exists."
'Not the kind of experience I expected'
Greenville County resident Heather Brown said she's experienced problems in the two times she's called 911 in the past year and a half. The first time it was to report a car that had driven into a ditch on Interstate 385.
"It rang a few times before someone picked up," Brown said. "I explained the issue and they said hold on they had to transfer me. Then it rang and rang and someone else picked up, I explained, and they said I’d need to speak to Highway Patrol. So they transferred me. And that rang and rang and rang. I honestly didn’t think anyone would pick up."
She described her interactions with call-takers as "rude" and "dismissive."
"The long waits between transfers is also pretty scary if there was a personal emergency," she said. "It’s not the kind of experience I expected, that’s for sure. I was made to feel like maybe I had done something wrong. And it makes me scared to call if I have a medical issue.
"What if I pass out before that transfer is complete or before anyone picks up. I’m on a cell phone, so would they be able to find me? It’s very scary."
The majority of cell phone calls to 911 automatically alert the call center to the cell phone's location through GPS.
Another woman said she called 911 to report a domestic disturbance and did not get the response she was expecting.
"I stayed on the line for almost two minutes and no answer," said Lynn Sarmento, of Greenville. "The guy ran off and as did the girl. I hung up, and got a nasty call back from a 911 operator. I know they are short-staffed and have to do those call-backs so I was expecting it, but she was incredibly rude and unhelpful."
Kernell, the county administrator, said the newly approved positions will improve customer service if they can be filled. Additionally, the county has already approved funding for a $5.5 million upgrade to the center's computer-aided dispatch system as well as an upgrade to the county's radio equipment, both of which he said will make communications more efficient and effective.
The new computer system puts more call information in front of a dispatcher, making it easier to see things like addresses, traffic patterns and where nearby responders and are to see who is handling which call. The radio upgrade to an 800 MHz system will allow different agencies to communicate using the same frequency. Both upgrades are expected to be completed this fall.
As it stands now, Brown describes the call center as "a dungeon." The lights are dim, equipment appears outdated and a smattering of empty seats is a telling image of the immediate need: manpower.
All new communications employees hired as either call-takers or dispatchers must complete a two-week course through the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. Dispatchers focus on handling communications for deputies and have more responsibilities while call-takers solely answer 911 calls, but because of the shortage, dispatchers are having to multi-task.
A formula used by call centers to determine ideal staff sizes is calculated by call volume. When calculated eight years ago, 17 people should be working per shift. At the time, only eight or nine were working a shift at the call center, Deitz said. The county has grown since then.
As a stopgap, the Sheriff's Office is in talks with a private contractor to bring on part-time call-takers to help alleviate the call volume, Brown said.
Brown said he also wants to upgrade the call center's equipment, replace outdated furniture, get new carpeting and spruce up the center's break room to make the job more appealing and provide better service.
Brown did not yet have a specific cost or timeline for those upgrades.
Deitz was promoted to the director of communications for the call center when Lewis took office in 2017. He has been with the call center for 19 years and said many of the desk features typically designed for dispatcher work stations are so old they are malfunctioning, presenting health concerns to the staff.
Satterfield, 26, described the work environment as old and dirty with no circulation and broken equipment, with calls often being hard to hear.
Because the center is directly below the Greenville County jail, they often hear banging on metal from cells above and occasionally have water leaks from inmates clogging toilets, Deitz said. It is not clear whether the difficulty in hearing calls is a matter of cell phone reception on the other end of the call or something wrong with the call center's equipment, he said.
"Sometimes callers are fine, sometimes they're not," he said. "We don't know if it’s on our side or their side."
Nevertheless, it's a problem, he said.
"That's one of the biggest things. And then when you've asked for it to get fixed, it's always a problem that it's unfixable," Satterfield said. "I feel like we're pushed to the back burner a lot, and that's very discouraging, that's what will make you want to leave."
Deitz said the shortage in Greenville County is felt elsewhere across the U.S. He said many government agencies, including in law enforcement, are struggling to retain full staff.
"It's one of those things where the government does stuff to keep up with what’s needed at that the time but doesn't plan for the future," Deitz said. "And by the time the future gets here, we're already behind."
If more people worked there, dispatchers could focus solely on helping deputies on calls while call-takers handle all 911 calls and dedicate full attention to those. As it stands, dispatchers are "doing a million things at once," Deitz said.
The short staff is problematic, Brown said, referring to the call center as "the nerve center."
"It's the first opportunity for someone to make an opinion about the Sheriff's Office," Brown said.
A dispatcher's shift is more demanding when they are fielding a high volume of calls that should instead be dispersed into a larger pool of call-takers.
"We have got to make sure we have the correct number of people on a shift so that they don't have to run through calls and can spend more time on each call," Brown said. "Everything comes down to manpower."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
Published: Thursday, June 7, 2018
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