Jul 27, 2023 - Health

Most U.S. emergency call centers are understaffed

Data: National Emergency Number Association; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: National Emergency Number Association; Chart: Axios Visuals

Most U.S. emergency call centers are understaffed, new data found, leaving 911 calls to go unanswered.

Why it matters: The worker shortage can have significant implications for people seeking help during a crisis.

  • The attrition rate at 911 call centers has significantly increased in the last three years, according to Karima Holmes, vice president of public safety at Carbyne, a cloud technology company focused on emergency communications center services.
  • Plus, fewer younger workers are stepping up to replace those who are retiring or burning out.
  • "Unfortunately, you're being put in queue until a call taker is available," Holmes said.

Driving the news: 82% of centers reported being understaffed and struggling with hiring and retention, per a national survey of 850 professionals across all levels of emergency services in May and June.

  • The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and partner Carbyne, conducted the survey in May and June.
  • While the survey did not do a census of every 911 center, "the clear response from the sample is that most centers are understaffed,' NENA CEO Brian Fontes told Axios.

Respondents cited stress and low wages as the main obstacles to attracting and keeping employees.

  • 74% of respondents said their centers are facing staff burnout, with many others showing mental health warning signs like anxiety, fatigue and low energy levels.

Holmes attributes part of the struggle to attract workers to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation, and the 2020 Black Live Matter protests that prompted a social reckoning.

  • "Public safety was not that sexy," she said. "So a lot of people stopped applying."
  • Another factor is outdated technology.

The findings were similar to those of an April study released in April that found more than half of 911 centers in the U.S. are facing a staffing emergency.

  • Nearly every one of the 774 centers surveyed in 47 states reported losing employees last year.
  • While vacancy rates varied, nearly all of the centers had unfilled positions, including: 166 centers with a 30-49% vacancy rate; 92 with vacancy rate between 50% and 69%; and 13 with 70% or more of their positions unfilled.

Yes, but: While over 90% of 911 employers provide wellness support services, only 18% of respondents make use of them, according to NENA.

What's next: NENA is advocating for a bill that would secure billions of dollars in funding to update the technology across the nation's centers.

  • Fontes said upgrades, particularly if paired with technologies and artificial intelligence, could improve service.

The association is also pushing a measure to classify 911 workers as protected services workers, rather than clerical workers, under the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • That would allow that 911 professionals are treated the same as police, fire and EMS workers, making them eligible for similar benefits programs, Fontes explained.
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