Last month, Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman called 911 to report that a 17-year-old boy was shot in the parking lot of a convenience store on East Main and South Elm streets.
Freeman, who lives in the community, heard gunshots inside his house. Her husband came out to see what was going on after he heard a woman scream.
Four minutes passed before an emergency dispatcher answered his call.
Freeman told the INDY that the 911 line rang several times as she watched the teenager’s life energy spill over the asphalt.
âI called at least twice,â Freeman says. âMy husband and a neighbor also tried to pass. “
Another neighbor, Kosta Grammatis, posted on social media that âwomen were screaming, men were pacing their phones trying to reach 911.
âA boy in a red shirt, eyes closed, lay motionless on the hot sidewalk. Blood collects around him, âGrammatis wrote. âIt took 15 rings before the 911 dispatcher picked up my call, ‘police are on their way’. We waited. The police station is a block away, but we waited.
âAnd as they stopped, a man started screaming and walked over to them, ‘Where the hell have you been ?! Where the hell HAVE YOU BEEN ?! ‘â
Freeman later learned that the teenager had died of his injuries in hospital. Durham Emergency Communications Center [DECC] Principal Randy Beeman says DECC is looking at response time to calls and agents.
No matter the minutes, seconds can make all the difference in tragedies like the one Freeman and his neighbors witnessed on August 11, just after 6:30 p.m. And Bull City is suffering from a shortage of 911 personnel. Emergency officials say the city needs quick, quick and on-the-go call takers, dispatchers and supervisors to answer phones and alert first responders.
Things got so bad that the 911 center this year began routing emergency calls to the Raleigh Emergency Communications Center. Mutual aid ended this summer when Durham’s emergency call volume was at its highest.
Emergency officials have short- and long-term initiatives in place to attract more workers, including online notices, social media posts and job fairs. Last week DECC officials held a job fair where 32 participants applied for jobs.
Earlier this month, 25 people applied for jobs at the 911 Center.
DECC is also working hard to retain its current employees with bonuses, double pay, salary increases and shifts that allow for a holistic âwork-life balanceâ.
Durham Public Affairs Director Beverly Thompson confirmed in an email that the Bull City Emergency Communications Center, much like many 911 centers across the country, is facing a staff shortage.
Thompson says Durham has “experienced high vacancies for a number of years.”
Last week, late Friday afternoon, only 50 of Center 911’s 83 full-time positions had been filled. Specifically, only 30 of the 60 front-line positions for call takers, dispatchers and shift supervisors were occupied, according to DECC statistics.
Thompson points out that the pandemic is “a critical factor” in the shortages experienced over the past year.
âThe shortages were acutely felt when staff called due to illness or were quarantined due to exposure to COVID,â she adds. âOur high vacancy rate has an impact on the workload of the remaining staff, and we recognize that this has resulted in extended wait times. “
Earlier this month, Beeman pointed to another reason for the 911 centre’s high vacancy rate: the agency does not appear to be able to retain its employees.
Thompson said the 911 center remains “fully functional” despite the challenges and wishes to remind callers to stay on the line if they dial 911.
âDon’t hang up,â she added.
But city council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said in a September 9 city council working session that he was “uncomfortable” with the city in a “bit of a spectator” posture, observing and hoping for a better outcome in the midst of an ongoing 911 response crisis. . Middleton called for an âeveryone on bridgeâ approach, again including routing emergency calls to another municipality.
The impact of vacancies peaked in July when 911 dispatchers responded to its highest number of calls for the year: 27,913, according to call data from DECC.
Beeman, during the business session, told city council members that the July call total was the highest the 911 center had received in a one-month period in five years.
âThe August data will look a lot like the July data,â Durham Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson told council members.
Thompson said that in July, the average call response time was just over 10 seconds for someone dialing 911 in Durham.
Beeman said the obvious during his presentation at the city council working session: a fully functioning 911 center is of critical importance.
âI recognize and take responsibility that we fail to meet acceptable standards for call response times,â Beeman said. âWe do not meet the expectations of our residents or visitors when  callers are unable to receive help at an appropriate time for emergencies.
Thompson said the 911 center “continually assesses the optimal staffing required at various times” to meet the industry standard: 90 percent of all 911 calls were answered in 10 seconds or less.
Working at the 911 center is not a bad job. It pays better than so-called âessential workerâ positions like those at McDonald’s, WalMart or Freddy’s, whose employees in Durham and across the country are demanding a living wage of at least $ 15 an hour and a union. The starting salary at the 911 center for an entry level call taker is $ 38,168 per year, with benefits.
Beeman said the 911 center supported the staff shortage by asking administrative staff and telephone operators to be available when needed. The center receives help from 911 personnel from the fire department, the sheriff’s office, emergency medical services and Duke University. Some former employees and retirees who work part-time, averaging about 20 hours a week, also help the center.
Middleton asked Beeman if the city is better now than when âRaleigh left us out. What is different?”
Beeman replied that Durham is in the same place, âor better than us. We are better than we were.
Middleton was unconvinced and again stressed that the city should seek another municipality for help until the Bull City 911 center is fully staffed.
âWe have to look for another partner to help us,â Middleton said. âThere is no shame in that. Durham is constantly sending help to its partners.
Support local independent journalism. Join the INDY press club to help us maintain the viability of intrepid reporting and essential arts and culture coverage in the Triangle.