Staffing, mental health cause challenges for 911 centers, survey says 

By: - August 1, 2023 6:00 am
A building with words over the double doors that say "Ned Chilton 911 Center)

The Ned Chilton 911 Center located at 200 Peyton Way in Charleston. (Lori Kersey | West Virginia Watch)

In a recent survey, 911 workers across North America identified staffing and mental health as significant challenges for emergency call centers. West Virginia’s 911 centers are no exception, representatives say.

Nearly 850 people from all levels of 911 telecommunicators, dispatchers, management and leadership in the United States, Canada and Mexico responded to the inaugural Pulse of 9-1-1 State of the Industry Survey released last week from the National Emergency Number Association and Carbyne.

Of those surveyed, more than 88% of respondents said their call centers struggle with staffing shortages and 80 percent said their call center struggles to hire new employees. 

That’s no surprise to Russell Emrick, deputy director of Kanawha County Metro 911, president of the state’s NENA chapter and vice president of the West Virginia E911 Council

“The biggest issue by far is staffing a 911 center,” Emirick said. “We do a great job but it takes a lot of work. We’re hiring and training pretty much year-round.”

Kanawha County 911 is currently fully staffed at 54 positions, but is adding positions for which it will be hiring soon, said Rick McElhaney, deputy director of operations.

“You have to stay ahead of it,” McElhaney said. “You can’t let it sneak up on you. It’s like maintenance on your car, or something like that. If you don’t stay ahead of it, it’s going to sneak up and get you.”

2023 Carbyne and NENA The Pulse of 911 State of the Industry Survey- FINAL - EMBARGOED TO 7.25.23


Staffing levels vary at 911 centers in West Virginia, said Dean Meadows, director of the state’s E911 Council. Some smaller counties may have a staff of only two people working twelve-hour shifts, Meadows said. To those centers, staffing may not be as much as an issue of those centers who staff 16 to 20 people, Meadows said.  

“It is an issue — no doubt about it,” Meadows said. “From a statewide level, we’ve got smaller centers, medium-sized centers, larger centers, and all of them, when we meet, we find out all of them have the issue of staffing. Some on a greater scale than others.”

Decreasing the retirement age for 911 operators is one recruitment and retention tool the West Virginia E911 Council has pushed for in recent years. 

Legislation passed in 2022 makes newly hired 911 staff members part of the Emergency Medical Services Retirement System, allowing them to retire at 50 years old with 20 years service. 

Since 2015, the state’s Public Employees Retirement System has required a minimum retirement age of 62 with 10 or more years service.

“Some of our people hired between 2015 and 2022 would need to be here 44 years to make it to age 62,” Emrick said. “We’re exceptionally lucky to see someone make it just 20 to 25 years. “

In other first responder fields like police, fire fighting and emergency medical services, workers are not expected to stay for 40 or 50 years because of the stress, he said.

Two thirds of the state’s 911 workers have been working 10 years or less, Meadows said. 

In the past 10 years, only 81 people across the state have retired from 911.

A bill that would have allowed all telecommunicators to participate in the EMSRS passed in the Senate this year but died in a House of Delegates committee due to a technical problem, Meadows said. 

Meadows and Emrick said they’re hopeful the bill will become law at some point.

“We feel that it’s going to be a good recruitment tool, because benefits are a good recruitment and retention tool, as well,” Meadows said. “So we feel like we can retain more people.”

According to the survey, fewer than 5% of respondents said their 911 centers allow people to work from home, which is considered to have the potential to ease hiring and retention issues. Only 4% said their call center was considering a work from home option. 

About half of respondents said technology and another 6% said equipment or computers are barriers to offering work from home. 

None of West Virginia’s 911 centers offer their workers the opportunity to work from home, Meadows said.

Read the complete survey

“The work-from-home technology is just not there yet,” Emrick said. “To be able to do 911 response all separated in different locations… We work together as a team. You can’t be struggling with Zoom while you’re also trying to get police and fire to a location.”

According to the survey, 74 percent of those who responded said their 911 centers are plagued by staff burnout. Ninety percent of participants worked for employers who provided support services for mental and physical, but only 34 percent reported using them. 

Like other first responders, 911 dispatchers handle traumatic situations that can have lasting effects. McElhaney still remembers taking a call 17 years ago from a father whose 3-year-old son was decapitated in front of him when the boy was struck by a vehicle while retrieving a ball from a Dunbar street. Another dispatcher took a call from his own mother when his father died, McElhaney said. 

“We all have those stories,” McElhaney said. 

In West Virginia, Kanawha County offers an in-house counseling program as well as a nondenominational chaplain and an employee association that puts on activities, Emrick said. At smaller 911 centers in West Virginia, mental health services may be offered through the local health department or the state Department of Health and Human Resources, Meadows said. 

According to the survey, 66% of respondents said their call centers use what’s known as Next Generation 911, an enhanced system that allows telecommunicators to accept and process a range of information including text, images, video and voice calls. The majority of those respondents were referring to residents being able to text their 911 center in addition to calling 911.

Of the 51 911 centers across West Virginia, 60 percent have a “text to 911” option, up from about 40 percent a year ago, Meadows said. 

“So it’s growing and moving, as far as that’s concerned,” he said. 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the requirements for the Public Employees Retirement System. It has been corrected.


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Lori Kersey
Lori Kersey

Lori Kersey is a reporter with a decade of experience reporting in West Virginia. She covers state government for West Virginia Watch.