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Staffing shortage at El Paso’s 911 center leads to calls on hold, dispatcher burnout

EL PASO, Texas-- 911 call centers across the country are short staffed and strained. That's the situation in El Paso, too. The volume of calls does not stop, but the ability to pick them up is becoming increasingly difficult.

A shortage of dispatchers in El Paso could be leaving many of you on hold.  ABC-7 spoke to one El Paso 911 dispatcher on the condition of anonymity, who said the shortage is leading to a dangerous situation.

“Are there enough dispatchers to take everybody’s calls right now? No there’s not, there’s not,” the dispatcher said.

The shortage means at any given point there may not be enough call takers to answer each call when they come in.

“It’s very dangerous if somebody is needing those life-saving instructions right from the start of the call or they are needing us to get the paramedics out there immediately. If we don’t have enough staffing, the call is getting put in a cue,” the dispatcher told ABC-7.

Ideally, each shift would have nine dispatchers, covering all sides of town - but when there are not enough call-takers, those remaining have to pick up the slack.

“El Paso is growing, you need more people at 911 to better serve the community. If everybody decided not show up to work, there is no one to answer your call,” the dispatcher told ABC-7.

ABC-7 filed an open records request with the city of El Paso and time cards were reviewed for all dispatchers for a eight-week period in the spring and summer. At its peak, the 911 center had 117 employees. A source told ABC-7 that it should be closer to 140. Overtime is also through the roof: In a span of eight pay periods, the data showed dispatchers worked an average of 135 hours per pay period - that's more than 50 hours of overtime per pay period.

"We try to work together to get relief - so somebody from the previous shift will come in to relieve that person, but that person ends up working 12, 13 hours. Mandatory shifts have resulted in dispatchers working three shifts in one day," the dispatcher said.

Around 31,000 calls went unanswered; when dispatchers can't get to your call, the system has to call you back. Being short-staffed means valuable seconds can quickly turn into minutes, where life-saving aid is left on hold.

El Paso Assistant Fire Chief Johnathan Killings doesn't deny there is a shortage of workers. The 911 emergency center has had to reach into other departments to fill the gap.

“We have a pool of trained of telecommunicators within the fire department that come out and and help on their days off. It puts a little bit of a strain back on the fire department. but it actually helps spread that impact a little bit further," Killings said.

This unit has never been tested as much as it was on August 3, 2019 - the day of the mass shooting at the Cielo Vista Walmart. The source told ABC-7 that she feels the 911 call center would not be prepared now if something like that happened again. The El Paso Fire Department disagrees.

"We would be able to do that again today if we called in off-duty call takers. We’d be able to fill those positions and be able to do that we also have cross trained individuals both on the fire and the PD (police department) side for dispatch and we can move them to 911 call taking,” Killings said.

The rate of people retiring is at 16% and training to become a dispatcher takes six months. The El Paso City Council has approved pay raises in hopes of retaining those already on the payroll. By comparison, a worker at a tele-communications call center may earn $20 per hour. Killings told ABC-7 that reinforcements are on the way.

"We have nine trainees that are currently on our training program and they are coming up. They are going to graduate next month. We also started 10 additional trainees into the program, so there is relief coming,” Killings said.

If you ever call 911 and are left on hold, officials say please don't hang up - as doing so will only put you in the back of the line.

JC Navarrete

El Paso native JC Navarrete co-anchors ABC-7’s weekend newscasts and reports during the week.

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