There are thousands of emergency communications centers (ECC) nationwide staffed with call-takers and dispatchers and other personnel working to take information from people caught up in dire situations and send first responders to assist them. Ironically, many of these professionals emergency communicators also need help.
A large percentage of ECCs (often referred to as PSAPs for “public safety answering points”) are in crisis because fewer and fewer people want to be emergency communicators. ECC workers are underpaid relative to the private sector, overworked, and under immense stress. It’s a formula for burnout, and many are walking away from the job. Which has the potential to be an officer safety issue, as inexperienced or demoralized dispatchers may get sloppy and fail to provide you with the complete information about a call. For the public, the ECC understaffing is leading to longer than normal wait times on some 911 calls.
“Some 50% of the nation’s emergency communications centers are understaffed,” says Chris Carver, former director of New York City Fire Dispatch Operations and director of public safety marker development for 911 technology producer Hexagon.
As we’ve seen with the shortage of sworn law enforcement officers, the shortage of 911 communicators is self perpetuating. When some 911 center staff leaves the profession, it increases the workload and overtime hours required of those who stay, adding to their dissatisfaction with the job.
Replacing trained ECC staff is not easy, and it cannot be done quickly. Once an ECC call-taker is hired, it takes about six months of training to get them ready to solo on calls. The worst case scenario for many ECC supervisors is to hire someone who quits just after the training is completed. That means they have to start the entire process over with a new hire. It’s even harder to replace a dispatcher or a supervisor.
Stress levels in 911 centers can be intense, and the effects of that stress are cited by many emergency communicators as a reason to leave the profession. This stress has long been cited as a reason for burnout among emergency communicators—after all, spending a full shift answering calls from people having the worst moments of their lives is not easy—but it has intensified with understaffing. Communicators routinely discuss the relentless nature of calls now that fewer emergency communication positions are filled.
The truth is the job has never been easy. Emergency call-takers and dispatchers often experience the kinds of psychological traumas felt by first responders. Of course the job is not as dangerous as being a cop or a firefighter or even a paramedic, but 911 center personnel are dealing with distraught people and life-and-death situations and that takes an emotional toll.
Psychologists refer to the mental health impact on people who do jobs like 911 communicators as vicarious trauma. That means these individuals take on the stress and emotional devastation of the people who call them, even though they are not at the scene. An aggravating factor in the effects of vicarious trauma on call-takers and dispatchers is that they are often left wondering what happened to that person who was so terrified on the phone. Once the call is passed on to the proper responders, it’s time for another call.
Stress and trauma-related symptoms manifest in emergency communicators in multiple ways and can be very similar to the experiences of first responders, medical professionals, and military personnel.
One of the most common forms of stress experienced by both first responders and emergency communicators is compassion stress. The most effective police officers, firefighters, and 911 communicators pursue their careers because they want to help people. Compassion stress is the result of that desire, and it can be devastating when the individual experiences the no-win situation where the person cannot be helped. The result can be compassion fatigue, where the communicator starts to lose some of the empathy for the people on the other end of the line, especially if the person is not calling about a clear emergency. It can also lead to sloppy performance when lives are on the line.
Another type of stress common to first responders and emergency communicators is critical incident stress. This is the result of an event that shakes the person’s sense of normality. A 65-year-old man dying of a heart attack on the way to the hospital is tragic, but generally not traumatic for anyone who doesn’t know the deceased. In contrast, a fire at a daycare center that kills multiple children is likely to haunt all of the people who responded to the call and even the communicators who took the 911 call and dispatched the responders. Critical incident stress can lead to physical, emotional, and cognitive reactions that may be immediate or can be delayed for months. Emergency communicators involved in some of the most horrific incidents such as school shootings can even suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
PTSD can be particularly devastating for emergency communicators because not all states recognize them as public safety employees. “The dispatchers who handled Sandy Hook suffered from PTSD and were not eligible for benefits,” Carver says. “Imagine that you have suffered this trauma and you don’t have a support system.”
PTSD from horrific events like the Sandy Hook school shooting are not the only concern. One of the most dangerous aspects of stress for all emergency workers is that its effects can be cumulative. Constant, repetitive 12-hour shifts of handling calls and texts about emergencies and non-emergencies can lead to burnout and a desire to just walk away. Which is what so many emergency communicators who believe they can find better jobs in the private sector are doing.
Local governments that operate emergency communications centers are searching for ways to help their personnel manage stress.
Another way that emergency communication centers are combating employee burnout is through the adoption of technology to make the demands of the job more manageable.
TECHNOLOGY AND EFFICIENCY
You can draw many comparisons between the shortage of emergency communicators and the shortage of sworn law enforcement officers nationwide. Obviously anti-police sentiment is not one of the reasons for the communicator shortage, but they do share some issues: stress levels, low pay, job dissatisfaction, long hours, too much overtime, just to name a few.
They also share the similarity that emergency communications centers just like law enforcement agencies are trying to do the same amount of work or even more work with fewer people. And just like law enforcement agencies, they are seeking to increase productivity with technology.
One of the biggest time-wasters for 911 call-takers is the hangup call. Just because someone calls 911 and hangs up does not mean the call-taker can ignore the call. At some 911 centers, they have to call the number to see if the person is really in distress.
Hangup calls are rarely people who need emergency help. Most are pocket dials from cellphones. It’s estimated that there are 240 million 911 calls made every year. Of those, experts estimate 5% to 15% are “abandoned.” The cause could be someone who decided not to wait for a call-taker or more likely it’s accidental dialing.
Technology companies, both in the phone market and in the public safety market, are developing new features to make abandoned calls less of a nuisance for emergency communicators.
CentralSquare Technologies’ latest 911 center software features “automated abandoned call processing.” The call-takers do not have to call back,” explains Jordan Witt, CentralSquare’s product manager for public safety. “The system sends a text message.”
Software developer Prepared is also working on the abandoned call issue, both to reduce workloads for call-takers and more importantly to prevent unnecessary law enforcement response.
The Nye County, NV, emergency communication center implemented the company’s Prepared Live software that allows a 911 caller to share video and other cellular data with emergency communicators in 2021. In a three-month time period beginning in late 2021 and extending into 2022, the center received 1,000 hangup calls. Before implementing Prepared Live, 75% of the calls were resolved by sending first responders. In 2022 that number was cut to 40%.
“Their dispatchers were able to use Prepared Live functionality to request live video proof of the scene and send outbound ‘text-from-911’ to inform the caller that their goal was to confirm their safety,” Prepared says. “This led to a staggering 35% drop in the percentage of time first responder were sent to investigate.”
Another way that law enforcement technology companies are working to help emergency communicators cope with their workloads is by improving the user interfaces on 911 software.
CentralSquare has long touted providing communicators with easier-to-use tools as one of its goals. In 2019, a company executive referred to the goal as minimizing the number of times users have to “click.” To help achieve that goal, CentralSquare's engineers sit with working call-takers and dispatchers to get knowledge of how their products are used.
Hexagon is also addressing user experience in its efforts to reduce the workload of emergency communicators. HxGN OnCall Dispatch is accessed via a browser or mobile app. The platform offers a streamlined workflow that is designed to increase operator productivity, the company says.
Hexagon says OnCall Dispatch was developed through user studies with both call-takers and dispatchers. The company adds that OnCall Dispatch “offers richer situational awareness without overloading the operator.”
Some of the most cutting-edge technologies are being applied to emergency communications tools, including geofencing and artificial intelligence.
For example, CentralSquare is incorporating geofencing into its latest 911 products as a way to reduce the impact of critical incidents on emergency communications centers.
A critical incident, a large fire, even a highway wreck can overwhelm a 911 center with calls from people who believe they are the first to report it. This can make it difficult for calls about another situation to get through. The effects can be even more severe on understaffed communications centers.
Witt explains that CentralSquare’s software allows the 911 center to set a geofence around an area where a critical incident has been reported. “More than 50 people calling about the same incident from the same area can inundate a center with more calls than they can handle,” he says. The geofencing feature lets communicators prioritize calls from a different area.
Artificial intelligence is another next-generation technology that is now being added to 911 communications software. For example, it’s being used for tracking trends of calling volume and other management issues in Hexagon’s HxGN OnCall Dispatch, it can also help accelerate response to critical incidents.
The AI aspects of contemporary 911 communications software are now in their infancy. AI is likely to be part of the solution to the emergency communications center staffing crisis. Personal assistant technology like Alexa and Siri bolstered by evolving AI will soon be advanced enough to handle many 911 calls, especially non-emergent calls. That will reduce the workload on human call-takers and dispatchers and free them up to answer emergency calls.