SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - When you call 911, chances are, you need help quickly - but do you know if the 911 center where you live is running up to speed?
In a WTOC investigation, we checked on the staffing levels at four agencies that serve six counties. We found an alarming number when looking at Chatham County.
The number that sticks out is the job vacancy rate, which is about 20 percent. The county manager said the county’s much-publicized takeover of the 911 center is ongoing, but not without its struggles.
“We knew going in what it was going to be like,” said Chatham County Manager, Lee Smith. “We’ve hit probably a few potholes, but nothing that threw the front end out of alignment.”
On staffing levels, Bryan County’s 911 center is about 90 percent staffed with just two vacancies. Effingham County’s is fully staffed. The 911 center in Bulloch County that serves Candler and Evans Counties is also fully staffed. Chatham County is only 80 percent staffed with 22 vacancies. County leaders said they are currently reviewing more than 100 applications for those vacancies.
“There are various reasons why we have the vacancy rate that we do, and we’re in the process of looking at staffing needs,” said Dianne Pinckney, Chatham County’s 911 Center Director. “Do we really need that number of people? The answer is, yes, we do.”
Pay, stress on the job, and other factors contribute to the low staffing numbers according to Pinckney. The county is working to incentivize the position to attract good communicators. Ultimately, having empty seats in the 911 center affects dispatch and response times, which differ depending on the type of call.
“People don’t call us when they’re having a good day, the majority of the time. They call us when they’re having a bad day,” Pinckney said. “Something’s going wrong in their day, and we want them to know that we’re there to provide the best service possible.”
Aside from staffing, the county is also working to fill in black holes in the county where radio communications don’t transmit. That means officers and dispatchers can’t communicate. The county manager said they’re looking at different technologies to fix that.
They’re currently updating their computer systems so that first responders can be dispatched more quickly, through a CAD system, or computer-aided dispatch. They’re also about to start using a system that provides more accurate location data when someone calls 911.
Perhaps the biggest struggle, though, is bringing all the municipalities and agencies in Chatham County under one protocol for 911 dispatch.
“The challenge for us now is actually bringing all those pieces together and making it simpler for the communications officer who has to dispatch for all these different agencies,”Pinckney said.
“Is it perfect? Absolutely not. The protocol things are tough because it’s the old adage of ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ We understand that, but we’ve all got to be on the same sheet of music,” Smith said.
When it comes to call volume, Bryan County dispatchers answered just under 80,000 calls last year. Effingham dispatchers answered about 70,000. The center for Bulloch, Evans and Candler answered about 93,000. In Chatham, that number is way higher. They answered more than 700,000 calls, according to Pinckney.